Even in Beauty
Helen holds her left palm up at her waist,
taps the back of her right hand into that cradle,
closes her eyes, sings Oh, Lord, my life is not my own …
I hear her graveside song, sway to her soft rhythm
though I’m back at home, looking out at my garden,
but seeing Meridian, Mississippi, James Chaney’s grave.
In front of me, here in Wisconsin, a hummingbird,
beak slim as a needle, arcs into the flower-
headed onion on the way to seed.
The bird’s wings in motion filter the sun like gauze.
How fast the heart must beat to keep time with the wings.
Beating, beating heart, beating back in Meridian,
back 50 years, everything’s in motion but time.
How did James Chaney’s heart beat
when he saw their faces, eyes fixed
on killing him, mouths curse-filled,
their fists, their tire irons,
the butt of their rifles,
when the chains in their hands struck his back,
his skull, when bones broke,
when the only way
this pain was death,
how fast his heart? Or how slow?
The moment folds into eternity. Forever
the contorted face, faces, forever
the opening at the end of the gun barrel.
The empty oval on the gravestone
where his image used to be,
that, too, shot at, replaced,
torn away, replaced, replaced again
and again until those who care know
that eternal moment is not yet over.
A gesture, an image, faces. Hate.
A portrait, a fine hummingbird, wings
almost invisible. There, here again.
It doesn’t add up, the years, the sentences,
the pain. It is not bloom, not seed.
It throbs even in beauty.
It moves Helen to sing.
I hear Helen singing.
Margaret Rozga volunteered to work on a Southern Christian Leadership Conference voter registration project in 1965, the first step in her ongoing commitment to social justice action. In 2014, she returned to the South as a poetry workshop facilitator on a multi-generational bus trip to the Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary conference In Jackson, Mississippi. She considers one of her greatest accomplishments to be hosting what may be the first ever poetry open mic on a bus. Her books include Two Hundred Nights and One Day, Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad, and Justice. Freedom. Herbs.