March 8, 2010

Untitled | Aimee Nezhukumatathil

In April of 2007, I helped welcome back Ms. Lucille to SUNY-Fredonia, the first college she ever enrolled in, but sadly left in the nineteen-fifties with a lot of hurt and anger in her bag. There was much pomp and circumstance in this visit, as the whole campus was eager to show her that much has changed in the campus climate in the time since she left Fredonia. Our women’s choir performed her poems to a standing room-only crowd. The English faculty held a roundtable to discuss her poems and designed a broadside of her poem, “won’t you celebrate with me,” where proceeds from its purchase would go to a scholarship for African-American students. She was scheduled to give a Distinguished Lecture to cap off her visit.

It was an event-filled two days with Ms. Lucille. Daffodils and tulips burst fresh and frothy-full across our lovely campus. I was eight months pregnant, but there was no way I was going to miss a single event with her in town, even though my doctor urged me to have as much rest as possible those weeks. When I was eighteen, I had recited from memory her poem “Admonitions,” to an (all-white) classroom at my first poetry reading in college, which was met with a bewildered and slightly stunned silence:


First time a white man 

opens his fly like a good thing 

we'll just laugh, laugh real loud my 

black women


When they ask you 

why is your mama so funny


She is a poet 

she don't have no sense

But I couldn’t help myself. Finding her words— so sassy, so full of light and ache and heartbeat in the middle of my giant Poulin poetry anthology was a salve and a kind of salvation to me those days of figuring out my major, figuring out what exactly I was doing in college. Hers was a voice I could believe in. Could be afraid of. Could snicker with in my dorm room by myself.

After her reading at Fredonia to an audience that numbered in the hundreds, she snuck a break from signing books and broadsides to nosh on a few cupcakes and punch with me (I was her water-girl, making sure she didn’t want for anything—new pen, bottle of water, took pictures for people who asked during the over an hour and a-half book signing that followed her reading). We snacked together behind the auditorium coat racks and she turned to me and placed her hands on my ever-expanding belly, a gesture that happened all too frequently that last month of my pregnancy from strangers and friends alike. But with “Mama Lucille,” I wasn’t startled. She just had that way with you. Very calmly and quietly, she whispered a blessing to my belly. Then she asked me, “What if he is the one, Child?” I laughed nervously, not quite understanding where she was going. The line of people waiting to get their books signed was growing restless. The cupcakes were almost gone.

She said again, “What if he is the one—the one who really does something? The one who ends poverty in this country? The one—who finds a cure for cancer. What if your son is the one who changes our lives for so much good?” My eyes filled with tears. No one, save my husband, had ever spoken to me that tenderly when I was pregnant. “My Child, raise that baby as if he. is. the. one. You will never go wrong. Trust in that.” She shuffled back down at the table to finish signing books and broadsides and I stood by in silence, turning over her words like a hard candy in my mouth.


I went home that night knowing I had just been in the very presence of an angel. Thank you, Lucille, light-mother of words. My almost three year-old son thanks you, too.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of the award-winning collections of poetry, Miracle Fruit and At the Drive-In Volcano. Other awards for her writing include an NEA Fellowship and the Pushcart Prize. She is associate professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia and lives in Western NY with her husband and young son.