Louisiana Ladies’ Watermelon Tea—1890
by Susan Swartwout
This photo holds more than pose, cheating
the sepia tone’s formal stare, or the proper places
and laces that display these unwed female forms
like iced cakes. The ladies have shared pieces
of themselves the camera will never know,
its gaping eye swallowing the scene like a melon seed,
black seeds the ladies squeeze out
between their lips, preening their images in the spit-
wet surfaces. Three maidens seated on the floor
smile the secret that floats between them
like a mimosa blossom. Their chins are tucked in,
eyes half-mooned under lids that seem to smirk
pure pleasure. One cozies her cheek against the thigh
of a beauty who sits in a parlor chair romancing
the camera, bouquet of ferns tucked into her bodice
by one of the others. Beauty raises her melon slice
to the camera: Hey y’all, I’ve passed on, but you can still see
I’m divine. She widens her eyes so you can admire
the image of belles, their arched skirts ringing
in memory. Myths of manhunting,
manipulation, are forgiven in their balm of drawl.
The lady who serves the treat invests everything
in her wrists. Plain and tall, she blunts the violence
of a broad-blade knife thrust half-way to hilt
in melon by the subtle swan’s neck curve
of her hand into wrist. Her other arm bends
near her waist, the hand swooning backward, falling
into curled fingers and pale iron palm. Center-
poised, she pretends in pose to defer to her friend
who stocks more satin fringe than Maison Blanche.
They glance at each other and smile, yes, sugar.
Keeping these ladies from sweet fruit’s excess
has never been simple. Kudzu layers their menfolks’ eyes.
Even clocks can’t hold us apart from their parlor.
Do call again tomorrow; nothing will change.
The ladies will be here, their fingers sticky with boredom.
Susan Swartwout is professor of English at Southeast Missouri State University, where she serves as publisher of the University Press. She’s the author of poetry collections Freaks and Uncommon Ground, editor of Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors and co-editor of three books. Among her writing awards are the St. Louis Poetry Center’s Stanley Hanks Award, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, a Ragdale Foundation Fellowship and Seattle’s Hedgebrook Writers Fellowship. This poem is from her new poetry collection Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit and is reprinted with permission of Brick Mantel Books and first published in Feminist Studies.
Read our National Poetry Month interview with Swartwout here.