Elegy for Sandra Bland
…………………………………July 13, 2015
Born fragile, like the rest
of us, you make your own way,
struggle to gain a foothold.
Along the path stumbles
and accolades. Your arms reveal
the bracelet scars of pain.
You persevere, speak out
for justice, earn a college degree,
secure a job in the South. So close
to making a difference,
only days from a fresh start.
A minor traffic stop ends it all—
an escalation, an arrest.
Instead of furnishing a new life,
you find yourself in a jail cell
alone with an intercom.
What monstrous fears
darken your mind? You see
salvation in a trash can
liner, a way to extinguish
the voices of the dream-crushers.
You hum “Strange Fruit,”
that old song. Oh, world, you say,
somethin’s gotta change.
Glitz at the Musée
Think I’ll escape,
reappear in Paris in the Twenties,
wearing only stiletto heels
and lingerie into the Louvre.
A guard will smile, warn me
not to touch anything.
He won’t see me fluff my curls
with lavender oil from Provence,
or snap my scarlet garter
behind the bust
of one old pompous duke.
The Belle of Baltimore
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, 1785-1879
Daughter of a monied merchant,
pretty “Betsy” Patterson dreams
of princes, jewels, gorgeous gowns.
A palm reader tells her she will marry
a man with a famous last name.
At a ball, The Belle of Baltimore
meets Napoleon’s younger brother, Jérôme.
A pink Indian cotton dress draws eyes
to her slender waist. The French naval officer
bows, asks for a polka.
Betsy’s gold chain becomes entwined
in the braids of his uniform. You see, he says,
we are not meant to separate.
Jérôme’s black curls dazzle.
He calls her my Eliza. They wed
on Christmas Eve, 1803, the groom
one year older than his bride of eighteen.
At parties, Betsy wears lavish clothes,
gifts from Jérôme. Lady Eve, her critics diss.
I am sure, teases friend Aaron Burr,
that I could stuff all of her dresses together
in my pocket, and mistake them for
my handkerchiefs. The new wife pays them
no mind. She relishes this limelight.
Napoleon, now Emperor, frowns on the match.
Jérôme and Betsy sail for Lisbon. She trusts
in the fortune teller’s good omens.
Jérôme buys her emerald drop earrings,
rides off to meet his brother in Milan.
Age twenty, pregnant and alone,
Betsy gives birth to her son, Bo.
Back in Baltimore, she waits for her mate.
Seasons cycle, time a bleak storm.
Napoleon has the marriage annulled.
Jérôme will not come back for her,
even to see his own son. Loss burns.
Betsy’s heart splinters. Jérôme, Jérôme,
have you forgotten everything?
She retreats. For therapy, she cooks
deep-fried oysters, shad croquettes.
Betsy travels, loses herself to fantasy,
finery, masked balls – in Europe, especially
Paris, where shadows hover over the Seine.
Prince Gortchakoff, a Russian diplomat,
dares to come near. One night,
while dancing a saltarelle, he whispers to Betsy,
You are better than you want to appear.
Just what are you looking for?
Sweetness and play spark their bond.
They mock the elegant madness around them.
His light penetrates her shell, yet
she does not speak what she longs to express.
Gortchakoff leaves for Rome. Betsy journals:
The letters of Prince G are such a treat,
his absence so delicious, I will not lay myself open
to losing this flattering interest by getting close.
She lets him go, wanders for years.
Old wounds suffocate. Betsy dies at ninety-four,
her burial place in Greenmount Cemetery
far from Jérôme, and the Prince who loved her.
I have been alone in life, she had professed,
and I wish to be alone in death.
© Shirley J. Brewer
Shirley J. Brewer graduated from careers in bartending, palm-reading and speech therapy. She serves as poet-in-residence at Carver Center for the Arts in Baltimore, MD. Recent poems garnish Barrow Street, Gargoyle, Naugatuck River Review, Poetry East, Slant, Spillway, and other journals. Shirley’s poetry books include A Little Breast Music, 2008, Passager Books, After Words, 2013, Apprentice House, and Bistro in Another Realm, 2017, Main Street Rag.