Southern Nostalgia

by Arielle Cottingham

Flying down any of the highways tattooed across Texas, bluebonnets untucking
themselves into patriotic bloom alongside cops dotting, say,
I-10, like sidewinders; one flashes
first- and second-place ribbons in my rearview.
The prophet Elijah resurrects himself into my back seat,
fills up the car with all the despair of Mt. Horeb,
whispers, They are trying to kill me.
The cop approaches the window like a famine and
my six-times-great-grandfather Elijah zombies himself into my passenger seat,
snips a button from his gray coat, sews it to my tongue,
pours Confederate gunpowder down my windpipe until my lungs fill up and I exhale with a
Naw, officer—I don’t know why you pulled me over this evenin.
The second prophet and second Texas regimental infantryman fling gravedirt
across my cheekbones
and the cop will remember this when he pinches the freckles on his own daughter’s face.
He leans down into the window and I kiss his neck openmouthed,
drag the button on my tongue across his jugular
and pray he forgets that Southern nostalgia is not to be trusted.
He reaches for his holster and pulls out
a pen and ticket pad.
The prophet Elijah claps his hands and he is John the Baptist singing, a change gon come.
The cop writes the ticket,
warns me about my dark side,
returns to his car.
Survivor’s guilt sparks the gunpowder in my left lung,
imposter syndrome ignites in my right,
the embers meet somewhere in the middle
and what a lovely urn my throat makes.
The soldier Elijah claps his hands and he is my father John the doctor, who
hates illegal immigration but
loves my immigrant mother,
leaves second-degree burns.
He wraps me in the privilege of the Big House, tells me
racism is over and I try to argue but
the button our ancestor sewed to my tongue has inflamed my throat and
I have written so much already about not being black enough and
a sunburned neck is still my heritage and
he does not hear me. He does not hear me.
Mom’s side of the family always said I looked so much like him.
And how bad could it be for you, really, if here
you are, returning to cruising I-10 or wherever, throat
still clear and free,
the legacy in your skin louder than any of the blackest things about you?

Afro-Latina poet, performance artist, and dancer Arielle Cottingham absconded to Australia with one suitcase and her mother’s miniature coffee maker in 2015. She won the Australian Poetry Slam in 2016, and she has toured through the US, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Her work has appeared in The Red Corner Audio Journal, About Place Journal, and Pressure Gauge Press, and her collection Black and Ropy was published by Pitt Street Poetry in 2017.