Shara McCallum

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Shara McCallum was born in Jamaica to Afro-Jamaican and Venezuelan parents and moved to the U.S. at the age of nine. She earned a B.A. from the University of Miami, an M.F.A. from the University of Maryland, and a Ph.D. in Poetry and African American and Caribbean Literature from Binghamton University in New York. Her books of poetry include Song of Thieves (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003) and The Water Between Us (1999), winner of the 1998 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Her poems have won a college prize from The Academy of American Poets, been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, and appeared in several journals, including The Antioch Review, Chelsea, The Iowa Review, and Verse. McCallum's poems have been anthologized in The New American Poets: A Bread Loaf Anthology (ed. Michael Collier, 2000) and Beyond the Frontier: African American Poetry for the Twenty-First Century. She is the recipient of a Tennessee Individual Artist Grant in Literature and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. McCallum lives in Pennsylvania and teaches and directs the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University. She is also on the faculty of the Stonecoast Low Residency MFA program.


History is a Room

The study of History is the study of Empire.
—Niall Ferguson

I cannot enter.

To enter that room, I would need to be a man who makes History, not a girl to whom History happened.

Mother to two daughters, I guard their lives with hope, a pinch of salt I throw over my shoulder.

To enter that room, I would need to wield a gun.

Here, I brandish weapons that serve an art my mother and grandmother knew: how to make of plantain and eggs a meal.

To enter that room, I would need to live in the past, to understand how power is amassed, eclipsing the sun.

Beneath my children's beds, I scatter grains of rice to keep duppy at bay.

To enter that room, I would need to live in the present: This election. This war.

Beneath my children's pillows, I place worry dolls to ensure their peaceful sleep.

To enter that room, I would need to bridge the distance between my door and what lies beyond.

Standing in my foyer at dusk, I ask the sea to fill the crevices of this house with its breath.

History is recounted by the dead, returned from their graves to walk in shriveled skins.

In our yard, I watch my daughters run with arms papering the wind.

History is recounted by children in nursery rhymes, beauty masking its own violence.

In my kitchen, I peel an orange, try to forget my thumb must wrest the pulp from its rind.

History is recounted in The Book of Explanations: AK-47 begat UZI, which begat M-16 ... and all the days of their lives were long.

Pausing at the sink, I think of how a pepper might be cut, blade handled so the knife becomes the fruit slit open, its seeds laid bare.

History is recounted in The Book of Beginnings: the storey of a people born of forgetting.

In our yard, I name the world for my children—praying mantis, robin's egg, maple leaf—words for lives they bring me in their palms.

To enter that room, I would need to look into the mirror of language, see in collateral damage the faces of the dead.

In our yard, I sow seeds, planting myself in this soil.

To enter that room, I would need to uncover the pattern of a life woven onto some master loom.

Here, I set the table, sweep the floor, make deals with the god of small things.

To enter that room, I would need to be armed with the right question: is History the start of evening or dawn returning the swallow to the sky?

Here, I light candles at nightfall, believe the match waits to be struck.

from This Strange Land