Holly Bass



This wasn't no wear all black funeral. Uncle Al showed up in a royal
blue suit with matching royal blue, pointed tow, snakeskin Stacy
Adams. Cousin William wore royal, too. But with blue-and-white
wingtips and a bit more gold around his neck. Most of the men were
content to wear traditional blacks and blues, leaving color to the
women. Mama wore her Christmas suit, the color of lemon creme,
once assured by her sisters that no one would remember it from the
holiday four months earlier. I wore a houndstooth suit, and over that
a Persian lamb mink collar coat Aunt Jean had found for me at the
Goodwill. Mama did my makeup and said I looked like a movie star.
We all looked good--filling up the pews of the church. Mama was
glad a lot of people showed up to grandma's funeral. Lena Pearl
Hollins wasn't one for making friends too kindly, or for keeping
them close, either. But that day everyone made a good showing.

The sun did not shine, but at least it did not rain. I didn't cry but
once, when cousin Jamil sang, "Goin' up Yonder," his fourteen-
year-old falsetto sounding angel pure and sweet. And then I felt my
heart fall softly when the funeral home man pulled the light blue
shroud off the sky grey casket, folded it quick and neat, and placed
it over grandma's white-gloved hands. He closed the heavy lid. You
almost could not hear the click.




"Dinah," automatic bank. Made in England, 1885, registered number,
no reproductions. $450.00. (Lists at $575.00)

I am luscious with my mouth open big, the red
of my tongue, the deep red of my lips
a palette of crushed berry, fresh blood,
so complementary. My yellow dress
is always in fashion, cut off just at the breasts,
modestly sized and round. The black whorls
of my hair coiffured in the manner of
a very fine lady, circa 1885.

I am the very picture of elegance
A rich black woman I keep my money
stashed in my bosom, my hand is always ready
to gobble down a copper penny
Would you like to see my eyes
do a dance? roll and roll, a good jellyroll

Give me a copper penny
And I'll dance and I'll dance,
oh how I'll roll
my pretty brown eyes




our smooth flat chests
covered in cotton nightgowns

two girls in bed together
kissing cousins, is what they say

but when I pulled her younger hand
close to my vagina

her fingers resisted,
curled into unwilling stone

I try another tactic
touch hers, hoping she'll get

what the game's about
but she remains stiff

little girl
doesn't want to play
gonna go and tell her mama
and make me feel ashamed

will I have to tell my secrets
how I touch another girl

and all the other boys and girls
the sleepovers and barbecues,

any excuse, group games--family
doctor, ten seconds in the closet

a chance to rub my reedy, unbreasted body
against her peach pit breasts

caressing the hairless slit
with saliva slicked fingers

big fun on a Saturday
playing little girl games





We roll up in the Camry
an occupational mission
South Capitol Beauty Academy
the sign barely visible from the street
like early century socialworkers
a well-paid consultant and her intern
driving deep into the hood
to tell the sistas how to keep from getting HIV

We bring condoms and posters with catchy slogans
the beauty school is not glamorous or chic
We would never get our hair done here
The only things that shine here
smiling pots of grease, the students' lacquered nails
burning dreams of glass-framed licenses--
the real reason they're here--
they already know how to do hair

Back of the school, past the rows
of washsinks, beehives of hairdryers
scattered tables where students and teachers eat
marble checkerboard on one
Gary, the second in command, offers
to play me while we wait for the Big Man
in the office to finish his phone call

I'm no checkers player, haven't played in years
defeat is imminent and more important
I've got ten more sites to visit after this
Still I pull up a chair while my intern watches
We go over rules, how far kings can jump
backwards moves allowed and who will start
Minutes later I'm eight men down
and his king is in my territory

Just in time, the owner's office door opens
He calls us inside. I see
a piece of fried chicken on the desk's edge
I see the nub of what was his left hand
covered in an athletic sock held on by a gold watch
I see papers strewn about, signs of a busy man
signs of a disorganized man. Just before we leave I see
the fry daddy filled with oil, a container of spice-red flour
This man fries his own chicken in his office
I glance at my intern, our eyes shutter and click
taking everything in.
The owner compliments us the way older black men do
when they meet smart, pretty black girls who've finished college
Says we look too young to be out of school and working
We smile and I see all my cousins, uncles and nephews
every black stranger who's ever said a kind word
when our paths cross on the street.

Georgia, August 1999

Driving back from Albany, I tell my father that I'd like a piece
of cotton to take back with me. We stop along the road. My
father has told me how he used to pick cotton every day after
school during harvest. Five-and-a-half cents per pound. The
most he ever picked in one day was 217 pounds. Forty years
later, he still remembers this number. Still remembers the
excitement of having seven hard-earned dollars in his hand.

I open my car door. I'll get it, Daddy says. Whatchu want?
Just a cotton boll? He looks across the field for signs of a
shotgun-toting, overzealous farmer guarding his crop. No one
in sight. He wades through high grass in dress slacks and
good shoes. I pray the ground is dry.

He pulls off three nice bolls. From where I am, it looks like he
is picking small, white roses for me. He returns to the car and
places them in my hands. I examine these strange flowers,
turning them by the stem. The papery leaves crumble as I
touch them. The hard hull, pointed enough to draw blood,
dark as my own skin.



Holly Bass is a poet, writer, and performer. Her poems have been published in Callaloo, Cave Canem 2000 Anthology and Black Prison Writings. She presented readings of her solo performance pieces "Black Like Coffee" and "Diary of a Baby Diva" to full houses at Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, DC. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, The Washington City Paper, and American Theater Magazine. In addition to freelance writing, she teaches creative writing in DC-area public schools and is a member of the Carla and Co. dance troupe. She recently completed a fellowship with the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. She has performed her poetry at numerous universities and art centers, including the Kennedy Center, the Whitney Museum, and the Apollo Theater. She was awarded two Artist Fellowship grants from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. She holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master's in Journalism from Columbia University.

Published in Volume 3, Number 2, Spring 2002.


To read more by this author:
Holly Bass: Audio Issue
Holly Bass: It's Your Mug Anniversary Issue (introduction), Vol. 10:3, Summer 2009
Holly Bass: It's Your Mug Anniversary Issue (poems)

Holly Bass: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue