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The Little Review
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Poem for Sunday


Ethel's Sestina
By Patricia Smith


Gon' be obedient in this here chair,
gon' bide my time, fanning against this sun.
I ask my boy, and all he says is Wait.
He wipes my brow with steam, says I should sleep.
I trust his every word. Herbert my son.
I believe him when he says help gon' come.

Been so long since all these suffrin' folks come
to this place. Now on the ground 'round my chair,
they sweat in my shade, keep asking my son
could that be a bus they see. It's the sun
foolin' them, shining much too loud for sleep,
making us hear engines, wheels. Not yet. Wait.

Lawd, some folks prayin' for rain while they wait,
forgetting what rain can do. When it come,
it smashes living flat, wakes you from sleep,
eats streets, washes you clean out of the chair
you be sittin' in. Best to praise this sun,
shinin' its dry shine. Lawd have mercy, son,

is it coming? Such a strong man, my son.
Can't help but believe when he tells us, Wait.
Wait some more. Wish some trees would block this sun.
We wait. Ain't no white men or buses come,
but look -- see that there? Get me out this chair,
help me stand on up. No time for sleepin',

cause look what's rumbling this way. If you sleep
you gon' miss it. Look there, I tell my son.
He don't hear. I'm 'bout to get out this chair,
but the ghost in my legs tells me to wait,
wait for the salvation that's sho to come.
I see my savior's face 'longside that sun.

Nobody sees me running toward the sun.
Lawd, they think I done gone and fell asleep.
They don't hear Come.

Come.
Come.
Come.
Come.
Come.
Come.
Ain't but one power make me leave my son.
I can't wait, Herbert. Lawd knows I can't wait.
Don't cry, boy, I ain't in that chair no more.

Wish you coulda come on this journey, son,
seen that ol' sweet sun lift me out of sleep.
Didn't have to wait. And see my golden chair?

--------

"Herbert Freeman Jr., his mama's only son, had spent his entire life at his mother's side," writes Smith in Poet's Choice. "In the wretched days following Hurricane Katrina, Herbert and his mother waited for rumored rescue from New Orleans' Morial Convention Center...she died on Sept. 1, 2005, just after asking her son -- yet again -- if the buses were coming." Smith said she wrote the poem in Ethel's voice because "I wanted her to triumph" and chose the sestina form "because it mirrored the way elderly women speak, returning again and again to the same idea, the comfortable words." The poem appears in Blood Dazzler.

We spent a lovely afternoon at Flag Ponds State Park, which has a half-mile path through piney woods to the Chesapeake Bay shore. It was gorgeous and cool in the trees, and it was sunny without being hot or humid on the beach, with water as warm as the air in which one can wade out over a hundred yards before it reaches one's waist, with very soft black sand underfoot past the band of shells and fossils where the water laps the sand. There are no big waves in the Chesapeake; there are some jellyfish, which discouraged Paul from swimming, though no one got a painful sting anywhere around us despite kids grabbing and tossing the jellyfish. There were plenty of kids and dogs, but no crowds, and we saw swimming and jumping fish, seagulls, pelicans, ospreys, and a baby hermit crab that Adam discovered while looking for shark's teeth (I found a decent-sized one of those).

In the late afternoon, we hiked back to the van, changed out of our swimsuits, and drove past the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant to our favorite restaurant in Solomons -- The Captain's Table, where we all had bowls of their legendary cream of crab soup and comparatively small dinners. We sat on the porch overlooking the marina where sailboats were coming back for the evening. After dinner, we walked to the edge of the water to see the lighthouse behind the Calvert Marine Museum, then drove home in the direction of a beautiful sunset, arriving in plenty of time to see the excruciating misery of the Terps' first half against the Golden Bears in their first game of the season. And Virginia Tech is losing by ten points to Alabama as I type this, sigh.


Younger son floats in the very warm water of the Chesapeake Bay.


It was a beautiful day in Calvert County, with occasional clouds and very clear water.


This beach is accessed by walking down the pre-erosion ridge of the cliff through thick woods, then over the protected dunes.


People were enjoying the water on boats as well as swimming.


Here are my kids several dozen feet from shore, barely wet at the waist.


Adam found this tiny hermit crab while digging in the sand for shark teeth. It crawled up his finger while I took the photo; you can see from his fingernail how tiny it is.


On the left is the shark tooth I found while sifting through shells. It's bigger than the hermit crab.


After dinner we circled around to take this photo of Drum Point Lighthouse and a nearby boat at the Calvert Marine Museum.
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