I’m posting this stunning poem in memory of the poet and writer Judith Ortiz Cofer, who died on December 30.
BY JUDITH ORTIZ COFER
My dolls have been put away like dead
children in a chest I will carry
with me when I marry.
I reach under my skirt to feel
a satin slip bought for this day. It is soft
as the inside of my thighs. My hair
has been nailed back with my mother’s
black hairpins to my skull. Her hands
stretched my eyes open as she twisted
braids into a tight circle at the nape
of my neck. I am to wash my own clothes
and sheets from this day on, as if
the fluids of my body were poison, as if
the little trickle of blood I believe
travels from my heart to the world were
shameful. Is not the blood of saints and
men in battle beautiful? Do Christ’s hands
not bleed into your eyes from His cross?
At night I hear myself growing and wake
to find my hands drifting of their own will
to soothe skin stretched tight
over my bones,
I am wound like the guts of a clock,
waiting for each hour to release me.
I have such a powerful memory of the brief time I got to know Judith. She gave a reading—a combination of poetry and prose—that was sharp and luminescent both at once, communicating both anger and innocence. It made for a riveting performance that struck me as utterly authentic, as if the combination exuded from her core without apology or adulteration. I remember thinking, or feeling, that in order to maintain that integrity, to protect that precious center, this woman had created strong and effective defenses around herself. I admired her for her rare success in this, and I exulted in it for her, which was easy because the reading was a joyful occasion. Cofer shone in triumph, made the audience laugh, mimicked voices and accents, held us entirely in her sway.
When a writer I care about leaves us, it is always a relief to realize there is work of theirs I haven’t yet read. In Cofer’s case, I will be planning to read her memoir The Cruel Country, which I will find especially important to me right now as I take my own unfinished memoir down from the shelf.