Conspiracy (to breathe together)
Last week, a woman smiled at my daughter and I wondered
if she might have been the sort of girl my mother says spat on my aunt
when they were children in Virginia all those acts and laws ago.
Half the time I can’t tell my experiences apart from the ghosts’.
A shirt my mother gave me settles into my chest.
I should say onto my chest, but I am self conscious—
the way the men watch me while I move toward them
makes my heart trip and slide and threaten to bruise
so that, inside my chest, I feel the pressure of her body,
her mother’s breasts, her mother’s mother’s big, loving bounty.
I wear my daughter the way women other places are taught
to wear their young. Sometimes, when people smile,
I wonder if they think I am being quaintly primitive.
The cloth I wrap her in is brightly patterned, African,
and the baby’s hair manes her alert head in such a way
she has often been compared to an animal.
There is a stroller in the garage, but I don’t want to be taken
as my own child’s nanny. (Half the time I know my fears are mine alone.)
At my shower, a Cameroonian woman helped me practice
putting a toy baby on my back. I stood in the middle of a circle
of women, stooped over and fumbling with the cloth. Curious George
was the only doll on hand, so the white women looked away
afraid I would hurt my baby while the black women looked away
and thought about not thinking about monkeys.
There is so much time in the world. How many ways can it be divided?
I walk every day with my daughter and wonder
what is happening in other people’s minds. Half the time
I am filled with terror. Half the time I am full of myself.
The baby is sleeping on my back again. When I stand still,
I can feel her breathing. But when I start to move, I lose her
in the rhythms of my tread.
I read ‘Conspiracy (to breathe together)’ in The Best American Poetry 2014, although it was originally published in The American Poetry Review. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue (2011), Suck on the Marrow (2010), and the sonnet collection What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006). She has a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She has also received an impressive number of awards which are listed on her website.
Although I didn’t realise it until researching Dungy, she often writes about the human/nature relationship, which was the central theme of my PhD. On the scarcity of African American poets in anthologies of nature poetry, Dungy states, “I miss seeing writers of color in the conversation. Until we have greater variety in the conversation, it is not a conversation—it is a monologue” (Poetry Foundation). She has been active in addressing the issue, having edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009).
Every time I read this poem something new rises to the surface: the young mother’s fear of failing; the traits we share with other animals; how the wonderful line ‘Half the time I know my fears are mine alone’ captures the way we carry echoes of our parents’ insecurities and the stories we learned about ourselves; Dungy’s subtle comments about race. What I found most profound was the title’s play on the word conspire which comes from the Latin conspirare ‘agree, plot,’ or con- ‘together with’ combined with spirare ‘breathe’: to breathe together. For me it suggests that the women in the poem — ‘Cameroonian,’ ‘black’ and ‘white’– are part of a greater and shared womanhood, while also being divided in different ways.
For more Tuesday poems check out the hub.