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O, Susanna, a poem by Susanna Childress

O, Susanna

Twelve and my breasts           begin their slow swell, moon-bright
in the seventh month of my slumber. This strange
sheen, as within the begonia’s waxy              heart, my neck
a spreading alpenglow            when, in front of the boy
from Glasgow County, Norah Clond snaps my training bra. Small discs
of turquoise hang        from my ears like fingerprints, the shape
pressed into my chest like Ms. Smoots taught us
to find lumps   grain-thick in the paddy of some
temerarious fright, that dim    scepter, womanhood. Mornings

she brushes the tops                of strawberry plants with her palms
to find the dark pebbles of fruit. After P.E.    girls fold
their bodies as a mantis      its pious limbs           into clothes that exhale
what perfume        our mothers allow.    And O for shame the day
she finds them, unmistakable knots, gristle, seedlings
in her left breast. Mother        cannot take me; Father runs
the truck to warm it, breath suspended like October fog over the soybean
field. We descend Hanging Rock Hill. My father, who, says my mother,    

clucked with happiness        at news of my period but with whom
the brutalities            of puberty are not spoken—save         
a drive from school the day I’d forgotten deodorant, his tender       
broaching my, as he called it, Tang, now asks, How              dense   
do the lumps feel and      Does any     substance come out your nipple      
if you squeeze?            O how like a garden                snake my tears     
make their way up, up from the fists    under the thighs,
from the chalky pit      of gut, the mouth’s soft gasket: some great   

caterwaul         pelts every corner of the truck’s cab: O ignominy
a marble in each breast, each throat               I cannot clear
and why        I will recall this moment as I stand outside     
a courtroom, twenty years      later, giving myself back    my name—
my tears      trouble my father so, he, too, begins to cry        for me.

Susanna Childress has published two collections of poetry and is now at work on a book of creative nonfiction titled "Extremely Yours." Her work can be found or is forthcoming from The Rumpus, Fourteen Hills, Crazyhorse, Iron Horse Literary Press, Rhino, Relief, and Oakland Review. She grew up in southern Indiana.