When I walk down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn
where they sell African Black Soap and the Koran,
it hooks me: the dark red leather, a dark like behind
my eyelids when I close them. There’s
a girl swinging a machete, cracking
the coconut that lies against her palm. She’s
out on the dusty streets of Lomé,
laughing her loud rude laugh; I’m
inside, learning to bear
that smart, proud laughter that’s arsenal against
cruel history, cruel landscape. I pick
the African soap, take in the grains of its scent;
decide to wear it on my skin; decide
in my little world of spiced, bitter dust,
I shall carry this red dark weight.

When I walk down the hill from Prospect Park, I watch
the smoke rise from an icy pink sun crouching below
the crust of evening. I stop in the boutique
that sells candles and soap, French milled, the way
my grandmother liked it. She told tales of champagne and oysters,
lipstick, men, shoes and Europe. Smoothed my light hair
and predicted : when I returned from “overseas”
I’d be pretty. The salts in her head did not always balance–
sent her to sob gorgeously from the body
when she played Chopin on the grand piano,
but she smelled of honeysuckle and said, sweetheart
“Pleasure is the thing.”
I want to be a thoughtless girl walking
lovely in an English field.

But soap, I’ve been taught, is mostly fat, palm or groundnut
Fat byproduct of stuffs that once grew in Africa. Stuffs with history
of travel, mean circuit; of sweat, and money and sometimes
blood; stuffs boiled in vats and moved on ships.
I am never sure how to stay clean.

Lately, my mornings cleave with the pretense
that I can choose which dream to remember.
But in the trail of morning the sun
makes as it travels across the countries,
I can only know that all the world is washing.

Mara Michael Jebsen is a poet/vocalist raised in Philadelphia and in Togo, West Africa. Originally a performance poet, Mara has featured at all of New York city’s major poetry venues, and at benefit concerts and cultural festivals for New York University, Georgetown University, Duke University and the University of North Carolina. In 2005, she received her MFA from NYU’s creative writing program. She’s been recently accepted to, or published in: jubilat, The Painted Bride Quarterly, Boxcar Poetry Review and Tea Party Magazine. She teaches writing at NYU and lives in Brooklyn.