poem

by Kiki Petrosino


Mrs. A.T. Goodwin’s Letter to the Provost Marshal, 1866


You ask why I raised my hand to that boy, why

I gave him some raps over the head, you ask

why I took my small riding whip to his shoulders

his head, why, you ask, why, when he would not cut logs

at the woodpile. You ask why I took him by the hand &

gave him some raps, when not one stick did he cut from twelve

to four. I told his mother, my milker-washer, I told her

in plain words he must do better. I told her all this without

any improvement. She was insolent, which is why my son

struck her. He only struck her when she ran from her cabin

to pluck up the boy while I was giving him some raps

over the head & shoulders with just my small riding

whip. Understand, Sir, this boy had not cut more than

two scant handfuls of wood for my cookstove, but all

the family were engaged to me: his mother, the boy

to bring my horses to water, to cut wood, only yesterday

he said I shall not cut a stick of wood. I shall not touch it. So these

are the negroes we’ve raised, never abused a single one, always

had the kindest feelings, the kindest, so long as their conduct

were tolerable, so long as I did not have to stand

by my wood pile, smelling the wood pile, the smell of the sap

intolerable from twelve to four, the heave & snap of the clear

sap inside the logs, never holding still, so that I had rather stand

in the house, my hands sifting flour across a board, so that

in truth I had much rather be still, holding nothing but

my riding whip, dark & folded up small.



From White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia by Kiki Petrosino. Copyright ©2020. Used with the permission of Sarabande Books.


Kiki Petrosino is the author of White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia (2020) and three other poetry books. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. Her poems and essays have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Best American Poetry, The Nation, The New York Times, FENCE, Gulf Coast, jubilat, Tin House and on-line at Ploughshares. She directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia, where she is a Professor of Poetry. Petrosino is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, an Al Smith Fellowship Award from the Kentucky Arts Council, and the UNT Rilke Prize.