Three Poems by Rachel Edelman

Dear Memphis,

                        Do you get jealous? 
          Here, I walk
       sweatless in the sunlight 
           and no one tries 
       to fry an egg on the sidewalk. 

                  I had a good excuse 
      to visit, but the country
                                          fell through. 
         The country where I am 
is the country I abandoned:
                      same cracked concrete,
same magnolias.

At the edge 
     of my neighbor’s garden, 
                             I tipped 
       my face into her white flower, 
                           her petals a palm
atop the layers 
                       of cotton on my cheeks.
        Each broad finger a shelter.


Dear Memphis,

                        I still like my hair pulled.
                  Since I lost the length,
                                   I scratch along my scalp
                                          to get a grip. 

          I used to cling
                       to my breakfast chair
while rubber teeth ripped
                                         through my curls.

              Broken strands floated
down to linoleum;
         hands trained not to let go.

                              Still, I stiffen
                                                   my neck. A net knots
              around a wish
                                     to be smoothed into place.

So many mornings
                              Minnie must’ve swept
     my hair off the floor. 

                    Once, my mother squeezed my shoulders
while she held
                            the smoldering end of a match
         to my scalp,
                            but the tick had already fled.

                                     So many hours
buffing our fingerprints
          out of the polished wood

I’d sometimes sit
              for her to braid my hair,
          her touch so light
                 I couldn’t tell she’d finished.


Dear Memphis,

              Today in the heat my eyes swam
as if through a chlorinated green.
My legs lagged,
                       sticky like the seatbelt
my second brother jabbed
while we bickered
                            over whose sweat dripped on whom.

Even the pool water
                  stuck like skin.
                                         Three brothers and I walked
thousands of strides from the locker room,
    our bare feet
                        calloused chalk-white.

                One August day
the lifeguards lowered a block of ice
into the deep end,
                     the great buoy risen
effortless above the sixteen-ft mark.

I watched
                other kids chase and touch
below the roped-off
                                springboard.

You couldn’t bring guests.


As a Southern Jewish poet writing about lineages of privilege and power, Rachel Edelman has always known the feeling of being from, but not of, a place. She grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, a city built on enslavement, reshaped by the 1960s civil rights uprisings, and dead-set in Christian hegemony.  After she left, she came to understand how her tightly-knit Jewish community espoused a dedication to racial justice while failing to reckon with their loyalty to whiteness. From that paradoxical sense of displacement and belonging, her manuscript, Dear Memphis, negotiates the intersection of identity and society where she now stands. Rachel was a finalist for the 2020 National Poetry Series, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Threepenny Review, Wildness, Poetry Northwest, and many other journals. She holds an MFA from the University of Washington and a BA in English and geology from Amherst College. These days, she teaches high school English from her home in Seattle.