One of the many things I love about poetry is the way it gives voice to things that may be difficult to say any other way. That’s why I read poetry, and why I write it, although my poetry is generally not for publication and more stream-of-consciousness than anything else.
This poem is a case in point, since I took a chance and submitted it to a publication on race and bias. The rejection letter I received was kind: “The format of your piece didn’t flow as well with the other pieces.”
I suppose the same thing could be said here – both the format and theme of this piece are quite different from my other writing, but I’m sharing it here anyway. “A change is as good as a rest,” my father used to say, so this is my change and rest today.
Pretty Colours at the Grocery Store
In the grocery store a few weeks ago,
I bought a bag of orange lentils,
a ripe red tomato,
a yellow lemon with a few black specks,
and a gnarled and light brown knob of ginger.
“Are you making soup?” asked the cashier,
and I said, “yes, the weather’s so wet and cold.”
“My favourite thing is to sit by my window
and look at the rain,” she said,
and I agreed, “Oh, I love that too.”
But then she asked,
“What nationality are you?
You’re so pretty–you look half white.”
I felt both stunned
and wanting to say a million things at once.
Like first of all she called me pretty,
and it made me think
how another stranger
once said that to me.
Years ago in a strange country,
a tall stranger in a green convertible,
slowly following me down a strange city street.
“Honey, you’re pretty,” he said,
“Where are you from,
you have such high cheekbones,
I’m an artist,
I want to paint your picture,
you could come to my studio.”
But of course I just kept walking
because I didn’t believe he was an artist,
and I didn’t believe I was pretty,
although yes, I had those high cheekbones.
And I wanted to say to the brown-eyed cashier,
“What do you mean I’m pretty,
because I look half white?
You don’t have to be white to be pretty,”
I wanted to say with some heat.
“Is white the only pretty colour?
And how can you say such a thing
when your own skin is dark?
Skin like coffee with a touch of cream,
and you are pretty.
You laugh with your eyes
and you’re strong on your feet all day
and your hair gleams black
and you are beautiful.”
I had so much to say,
so of course I couldn’t,
and she just kept talking,
finished scanning my groceries,
cash or credit,
do you have your Airmiles card,
and the woman behind me
tapping fingers on the counter,
waiting her turn at the till to go on.
So I paid my bill and took home
my orange lentils
and the ripe red tomato,
the yellow lemon with a few black specks,
and the gnarly brown ginger,
and made my beautiful soup.
I stood at my window
and looked at the rain.
“I always stand at the window,”
I should have said.
My chair faces away
from the window
to the warmth of the room.
I felt my high cheekbones,
and looked at the rain.
Writing/Reflection Prompt: Do you read or write poetry, and why?
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18 thoughts on “Pretty Colours at the Grocery Store: a poem on race”
Your poem ushers me into your experience, April. And how telling, to have a conversation like this one where one person “checks others out,” and where others “pay.”
Here’s to “beautiful soup” generously shared with everyone at the table. Grateful to have read this powerful poem this morning. Thank you. Hope you’ll share more in future posts . . .
Thank you so much, Laurie – your comment and encouragement mean a lot to me. I also appreciate your noticing the interplay between “checking out” and “paying”–that’s part of the many-layered nature and richness of poetry that I love. There’s always so much to discover.
Loved your poem, April! To extend the analogy a bit more: While people are “paying” and “being checked out,” the rest of the world watches, impatiently waiting for the drama to play itself out, to get back to normality once again and resume their ordinary lives!
Appreciate your interpretation here, Elfrieda – thank you!
Thanks for the lovely poem! I don’t read poetry very often but I encourage you to keep writing and publishing. Who cares if it is not appreciated by publishers. Keep writing! The world needs this kind of writing.
I don’t write a lot of poetry, Kate, but I couldn’t find any other way to give voice to this. Thank you for your vote of confidence!
Like you, April, I sometimes write poetry but have only published a handful in very small venues. Poetry requires a different kind of impulse and discipline than prose. I get the impulse every so often, but I don’t understand how to translate it from prose to poetry. I often feel that without the line breaks, I still have prose.
One of the things most interesting about this poem is that it illustrates the power of the idea of whiteness as beauty. If the clerk had been white herself, she would either be an overt racist or totally unaware of the conversations about race taking place in the last 20 years. But she internalizes the idea that white equals pretty and expects that you will be complimented.
Keep playing with this poem. It deserves to be published. I hope the comments from your many readers will bring all the layers of meaning into full expression.
But of course you are a publisher yourself. 🙂
I’m loving all of the comments, Shirley, including yours. Richard Foster says that books are best written in community, and perhaps that’s true of poetry as well. What most strikes me is the last line of your comment. I usually say that I “post” an article on my blog, but from now on I’m going to say “publish”!
April, you and your writing are beautiful. I could picture this scene and that of an earlier time in your life. Keep writing the hard and share them with the world. We are ignorant people who need your brave words.
I wrote poetry long ago and lost it for a while, but recently have found myself drawn back because of the freedom of it and its power to convey a strong message in few words. I’ve always found myself in the Psalms- not surprising!
Thank you, Janna. I am also drawn to the Psalms, and to the evocative power of poetry. When I have difficulty saying something in prose, I find that poetry helps me to express those deep things.
April, I love your poem and the way it subtly and gently makes us think as we are led through your experience and transaction. It seems as if God delights to make a flavourful soup from the mix of people He lovingly includes, each one needful, adding richness, spice and variety in terms of age, culture and experience. No matter if we’re plump and smooth as a fresh, ripe tomato or bent and gnarly as curled up ginger, spotted, speckled, dusty or freckled, there’s a warm welcome and a place at the table for all. And that’s what grace is all about. I hope you feel emboldened to share your poetry here again. Blessed to read this today! 🙂 x
I’m glad to see you here, Joy, and appreciate your grace-filled response. I love the thought of God delighting in us and all of creation! May His grace fill you and continue to make you a blessing.
What an interesting experience you have shared! I never identify myself as “half-white” if people ask, I assume they are asking about me being “half-Chinese”. In university (in Australia) I had an email conversation with someone that I later met who made the statement that he thought I would be pretty because Eurasian girls always are. I had never heard the term Eurasian before. It does seem odd that race and pretty would be thought of together. I have appreciated your beauty in the past – but more your inner beauty than your familiar outer beauty. Thank you for your gracious, courageous poem.
Thanks for your comment and sharing your story from university–that seems parallel in some ways to mine. While it might seem odd to us to connect race and being pretty, in the 1940s and more recently, studies indicate a white bias. You might be interested in this report: http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/
What a singularly moving piece.
ah, the power of poetry – thanks, Bev!
I really enjoyed your poem today. I am not normally a lover of poems, but I might have to rethink that position.
I too enjoy watching the rain.
Thanks, Shelley. I’m drawn to some poetic forms and themes more than others, and you might find that with poetry also. I’m glad this one connected with you!