(finalist for the 2022 Boston Review Annual Poetry Contest)
For Lillie Scott, Philadelphia PA (1932-1952)
How old were you when you knew
to forsake mother and father and vanity
and commit your whole self to Christ
Your sisters say you were most beautiful
and older than they—and still young when
you worked in the church. When you began
training in the order of the sisters to whom you
It must be 1949—I see you washing, and carrying
a tethered stack of books up Fernon St. and down
to Saint Nicholas or Saint Thomas Aquinas or Epiphany
of somebody’s Lord. Your temporary vow fresh
on your lips and ever pure heart.
Your sisters say you were too Black to nun,
that that church lied to you, let you bear a cross
that broke you.
Your sisters say you, one day,
came back to them, and the house
of God sent you straight upstairs
where you talked with mother for hours
and never were the same.
Your mother says nothing.
Your brother visits and whispers of shock therapy.
They all whisper priest must’ve, and
our sister, and you are just twenty when
your mother, barely five-foot and round,
Black and poor, goes down to that church
and, suddenly, miraculously, they pay
for your burial in a catholic cemetery.
The church says nothing more.
Your death certificate says
“nervous type” and “tuberculosis.”
Life Magazine says the asylum was “Bedlam”—
says you were most likely restrained
for days in leather cuffs,
or put in the “dungeon”
or, the historians say, worse because you were Black, and
my grandmother tells me she loved you fiercely
in the way she reaches for me when your name
A martyr, the first miracle—
Aunt Lillie, my hand in yours,
The second—you alive, white
collared and dressed in black.