Charleston’s poem is a piece of contrasts: youth and age, sugar and spice, consumption and generosity. Rife with gustatory description, the poem gathers crumbs of what it means to be home. Our speaker avoids establishing a setting directly. As we read, we discover location through a person and through food. “The pink lip of the sink,” and “some pancake-flipping ghost” usher us into a home built from tastes and smells, a home typified by presence rather than walls. This presence is complex and defining, just as pepper defines the poem. The first strophe ends, “your face has always been peppered with moles,” mirrored by the final: “I pepper for spice.” Like a full course meal, Charleston’s poem balances its contrasts to satisfy. The figurative “excess of sugar” meets the literal “black-eyed peas, butterbeans, / collard greens, mac and cheese and chicken piece, fried.” Throughout the poem, shifts arrive gracefully, as smoothly as the elongated curse at a “white boy mistake,” as smoothly as we find ourselves sliding into the contrasts of home, for all its sweetness and salt.
—Erin Griffin Collum
“Your Face Has Always Been Peppered With Moles”
Cortney Lamar Charleston
For as long as I’ve witnessed the affliction of light
washing over your skin like this, as you stand hunched
over the pink lip of the sink, scrubbing, Sunday spilling
through these small windows of time, lighting up
the kitchen like some pancake-flipping ghost,
your face has always been peppered with moles.
Pray tell, was this his answer to your asking for
guidance while posed on your knees that night, and
that night, and that night? I don’t remember it, but
you were a girl once, and as such, had gifts, talents;
there were things you could do, within reason, that men
simply couldn’t—or refused to, if that seems less of a lie.
I’ve seen the pictures to prove it wasn’t looks that held you
back in life, short of looking Negro in backwards, backwoods
Mississippi, way back then, even now, even here: sweet home…
But let’s not dwell long on appearances, please: that is a concern
for the barber, not for the barber’s wife outside of morning service
or allusion to what sits atop the table awaiting a knife and a fork.
I don’t know a thing about marriage aside from the smell when
it’s burnt, which is a manner of saying soul food might pass along
with you; but I do know a long-time diabetic has no need for this
many cakes. Whenever my birthday comes, Christmas, I can
count on a twenty-dollar bill folded into a card, the card itself
equating to another four or five bucks if Hallmark brand,
though the gesture is always “a mark of genuineness.” Yes,
I suspect there’s an excess of sugar somewhere in all of this—
being an accelerated math student and all—but right now
the Bulls are playing a nationally televised game, and
Hinrich just turned the ball over late in the fourth quarter,
making a white boy mistake, which I can tell by the way
you inflect shiiittt, holding its one syllable like a hymn note
while I tend to my supply store Styrofoam lunch tray,
brown eyes locked on black-eyed peas, butterbeans,
collard greens, mac and cheese and chicken piece, fried,
that I pepper for spice yet somehow, to me, comes off
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.