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poetry Callie Barr’s Black Bottom

The identity of an African American woman Callie, who was William Faulkner’s maid, is seen from different perspectives in Malcolm Tariq’s poem.

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Callie Barr’s Black Bottom

By Malcolm Tariq

in memory of Callie Barr, known in historical record as caretaker of William Faulkner’s family

You may find her behind

Rowan Oak, a shadow

of fortress where then now

you find no real entry place.

Where then now a tree grows

near that door, purple flower

heads peeking through into

the world she left behind.

Here then now she found a home

as shadow, covering

it all with her big black

small frame of big womanness

now then where the cabin creaks.

You may find somewhere

                        her portrait stuck to a wall

            where then now she lingers,

shadows peeking over her face

to find the proclaimed Mammy

joy. They leave themselves to

tell her story, to guess her

age unknown and rounded out.

Here then now she lies absent,

erased by the very word—

entry marked into the bottom

of history where then now

we find no shadow of life

as told by her. History carries

            her tale through his and her mouth.

Say: I heard it like this

now then where she lingers

on tongues that spit out the bad

taste to tell a good story.

Say: Here lies Mammy, born

in bondage, died in devotion

and love. Where then now

they opened earth’s

mouth ready to receive her

body. Stretched that back

over her. Placed the tombstone

as muzzle that says: “Mammy.

Her white children bless her,”

where then now her black children

listened and watched that doing,

            going back into their shadows

after she lay buried in the maid’s

            uniform as they say she requested.

                        Then now there was it

            emblem of her service or her life?

Where then now is Callie?

"Callie Barr's Black Bottom" originally appeared in The Georgia Review, Volume LXXIII, No. 3 (Fall 2019), © 2019 by The University of Georgia / © 2019 by Malcolm Tariq. Reprinted by permission of Malcolm Tariq and The Georgia Review.

Malcolm Tariq is poet and playwright from Savannah, Georgia. He is the author of Heed the Hollow (Graywolf Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and Extended Play (Gertrude Press, 2017).  He has received fellowships from Cave Canem and The Watering Hole. A graduate of Emory University, Malcolm has a PhD in English from the University of Michigan. He lives in New York City.