Paisley Rekdal

How thoughtlessly

          I took it, this cast-

iron Aunt Jemima


doll hauled from the trunk

          of my white

friend’s car. Another


of T’s, her Jamaican

          husband’s, mementos

he collected


as a joke. Not unlike

          those figurines

I recall a college friend once


exhibited, who’d bought

          Aunt Jemima spoons,

shirts, piggy


banks, left his apartment strewn

          with Uncle

Remus albums scavenged


from thrift shops: some

          terrible gag

he’d invite friends over


to witness: we’d sit

          and try not to look,

or to look and laugh


with the same

          irony he’d cultivated,

though of course


it couldn’t be the same. He

          was Black and we

were not and didn’t


each of us still have

          some cupboard sticky

with the drippings from these


crystallized red caps, a box

          of Uncle Ben’s

growing rancid


in the pantry?

          My friend, I don’t think,

enjoyed his figurines so much


as our discomfort, the fact

          he could see us for the first time

see the image the way he’d had to,


which is not the same as feeling

          his own anger reflected

back in us. He liked instead to parse,


I think, the inbuilt limit where

          his and our histories

finally split apart. Of course,


none of us thought the collection

          that funny to begin with,

but none of us would say it, how tired


we found the game:

          our laughter less

a reckoning with shame


than an indulgence

          he thought he’d granted us,

that he insisted he perform


for and with us.

          But at whose expense?

Did I mention my friend


was half-white? Light-

          skinned, raised by a white

and single mother, his collection perhaps


an imagined test for being

          Black: something

he couldn’t parse turned to this


self-hating shorthand he could display

          and thus control for those

both too like him


and nothing like himself?

          I had, in my own closet,

a pair of Japanese dolls


gifted me by my white

          grandmother who’d bought them

from a Chinatown gift shop


after my mother said, She

          should have something that looks

like herself, and so here


they were: twin geishas

          with real hair, moveable feet,

scrap-silk obis. How Po Po grimaced


when I unwrapped them, she

           who refused even to eat

in Japanese restaurants: now


she’d be sewing tiny yukatas

          for a half-

white granddaughter


every Christmas. I kept the dolls

          far past childhood as my own kind

of joke, as if I’d also not loved


the cloud-spun hair, the gilt

          kimonos, and now I wonder

if my friend’s figurines


were chosen only

          for disdain,

not some tenderness


remaining for the soft

         cheek, the glowing

eyes more penetrating


if blanker than a mother’s, perhaps

         more familiar

than a mother’s, because


they watched him

          at the breakfast table

in every white friend’s


house, his only ally

          and witness, uncanny

reflection of an already


uncanny self.

          I kept my own dolls

on a shelf, hid them


when friends brought theirs

          over, the blondes

with their pink cars, houses,


their multiple husbands.

          But I kept my dolls’

faces clean, wiped away


the dirt stains from their feet,

          the only thing

about them that could move,


because they were meant to dance,

          my white grandmother

told me. I have no idea


where these dolls are now;

          I never added

to their collection the way


my friend did, the way

          T did, who died of leukemia

and never found his collection


painful perhaps because

          he never saw himself

as American. They were a token


of our racism; he’d absented himself

          from the equation,

while his white wife,


who despised them, learned

          to tolerate them because

she loved him. Was it worse


that T and my friend

          made a joke of it,



they could stand so outside

          these images that,

in displaying them,


they’d appear exceptional

          in their self-control:

the collections became a show


of ownership itself? And why

          take one myself

if I had no reason to memorialize him


in such a fashion:

          not thoughtless,

exactly, my impulse


to reach for it, this memento

          of endless negation,

fun-house mirror


in which I can stare

          and see myself reflected

back through time: distorted, yes, but some


crucial part of me still recognizable,

           if grotesque

to others? My Japanese dolls


were common replicas,

          I learned, having seen them

at the house


of a friend whose grandfather

          fought in the Pacific

Theater. He’d brought them home


for his wife; now they languished

          on a shelf in dusty

shrouds, souvenirs of a country


he bombed but never saw,

          and now preferred to display

in a glass-backed case.


My friend in college

           quit school early, joined a band

that became, in the 90’s,


briefly famous, got rich,

          left town, never contacted

any one of us again.


It wasn’t for him

          as it wasn’t for T

I selected this doll, gone now


into the back of a closet

          where it will remain

until I find some like-


minded person

          never to display it,

because I cannot,


would not ever display it,

          nor can I sell it, not trusting

who else would want it:


in truth, I am owned now

          by this doll, it chose me

once I chose to take it:


I cannot release it

          to anyone else’s

version of history. Who else will love


the doll the way it demands

          to be loved,

the way I have learned to love


myself in it, which is to say

          how I’ve learned

to accept my appearance


in it, which is to say

          I am not laughing here.

I took it. I am the joke.


Found In Volume 52, No. 05
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  • paisley rekdal
Paisley Rekdal
About the Author

Paisley Rekdal is the author of over ten books of poetry and nonfiction, most recently Nightingale: Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) and Appropriate: A Provocation (W.W. Norton, 2021). A two-time finalist of the Kingsley Tufts Prize, her work has garnered fellowships from the NEA, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She guest edited Best American Poetry 2020, and her own work is forthcoming from or has appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The New Republic, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, and The New York Times Magazine. From 2017-2022, she served as Utah's Poet Laureate. She is Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of Utah.