Tributaries: "free women"


By Kathleen Hellen


down the street from where
someone had painted Tear
It Down
— as if she were
confederate—from where
the martyred maid still flags the air
for France, a shining reenactment on Decatur
there’s the voodoo museum with
its copy of Rinck’s
"femme de couleur libre"
The veil, the “little roof” she wears
a shelter for the spooks
who want a tip—a cigarette, a dollar
at the altar to the carnal.
They used to think I looked like her
the hostess reminisces
and leaving off the tired histories
says at Congo Square
on Sunday afternoons
she moonlights as the rabbit or
the wolf, the rougarou
potions her desire, prowls the oyster
bayou, her wetlands forested.  The pleasures
men confuse  

with domination. Hair
the contraband, wrapped up in a little tent
where ten to six she sits, contemplating
womanhood. What woman
wouldn’t, if she could
dwell in appetites

Kathleen Hellen is the author of the collection Umberto’s Night, winner of the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize, and two chapbooks, The Girl Who Loved Mothra and Pentimento. Her collection The Only Country was the Color of my Skin is forthcoming in 2018. Hellen’s poems have appeared in American Letters and Commentary, Barrow Street, The Massachusetts Review, New Letters, North American Review, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, Salamander, Seattle Review, the Sewanee Review, Southern Poetry Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Witness, and elsewhere. Nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net, and featured on Poetry Daily, her poems have been awarded the Thomas Merton poetry prize and prizes from the H.O.W. Journal and Washington Square Review. For more on Kathleen go to