Cheyenne Avila, in her poem “In This Short Film, The Black Girl Becomes a Woman when she realizes her Lineage is a Succession of Burials,” flashes a life before the reader’s eyes. Framed as a narrative meant for viewing, a series of scenes flick on and off the screen of the poem. Both familiar and alien in their horror, each scene is at once a shared memory and heritage and a very specific mourning and survival. And this is the trick of life, that only living can count the dead. Her ending, a half-formed list of beatitudes are haunting and haunted, as if to look the reader in the eye and ask “you saw that too, didn’t you?” Yes, yes. We cannot look away.
— Rocío Carlos, author of Attendance, poetry prize judge
In This Short Film, the Black Girl Becomes a Woman when she realizes her Lineage is a Succession of Burials
I. Opening Scene.
She runs her hands over a mudpatch at Forest Lawn and the cold reminds
her of the waves at Manhattan Beach the day her belly
swelled with the ocean, the day her eyes and throat reddened,
dehydrated, the day the salt from the wet crusted
over her brown skin and every time she ran her tongue
over her bottom lip she tasted some drowned ancestor’s tears.
She runs her hands over a mudpatch at Forest Lawn and remembers
the summer rain that flooded her apartment complex, when everything
was green and grey and touched by the sky and her hair tugged
itself stringy in the downpour and the air thickened like the breath of an
Still-frame of an incense burning and a Nina Simone record spinning against
the backdrop of midnight.
Her Black Mother moves silent and nothing can touch them here.
Nothing ends except for the song, and still, the song resurrects every time.
III. Rising Action
The hospital is enamel. To what quivering midnight appendage does Grandmother cling?
Clinical. They let her body hunger. And no mouth fixes to coax. To convince.
Grandma only wants the fruits from her garden.
The drought has made everything too timid.
Including the Black Girl.
She holds a plum for ransom behind her back.
Too fearful to spoon, she lets it spoil.
No water or soap undoes the rot’s stick.
The summer of 2009 returns open-mouthed and hungry for the child she was twelve months ago. The heat shudders, and the Black Girl knows she has come running with empty arms into the hardened side of a season with no shadow to cool her fervor.
The summer of 2009 rolls in and delivers the frail body of a woman who had been preparing to die the entirety of the Black Girl’s life.
She watches her return to the earth and does not pray for nine years because it selfish and it does not unpack the soil, it does not undead the gone, it does not ungrief the loss.
When she returns to her apartment complex it is sunny and her friends want her to swim.
She jumps in the pool and forgets soil for eight years.
V. Falling Action
The fall of 2017 forces the shovel into the Black Girl’s hands. The dead have not forgotten her and they are hurt by her forgetting. A monarch lands on her lunch table and says, Hello. I am still here.
There is no more house in Inglewood and there is no more Grandma’s voice. There is no more cigarette stink and there is no more fable. There is only the beckoning summer and the new mouth of the dead. There is only stubborn acceptance and reluctant hopefulness. There is only the guava tree in the backyard that still falls plump fruit without a hand to guide it.
Blessed be the righteous anger become forgiveness.
Blessed be the taut skin tufted by time.
Blessed be the child who survived the days the sky was ready to bleed her out of her skin.
Blessed be the child who didn’t.