Rebecca Gayle Howell

My Mother Told Us Not to Have Children

She’d say, Never have a child you dont want.

Then she’d say, Of course, I wanted you


once you were here. She’s not cruel. Just practical.

Like a kitchen knife. Still, the blade. And care.


When she washed my hair, it hurt; her nails

rooting my thick curls, the water rushing hard.


It felt like drowning, her tenderness.

As a girl, she’d been the last


of ten to take a bath, which meant she sat

in dirty water alone; her mother in the yard


bloodletting a chicken; her brothers and sisters

crickets eating the back forty, gone.


Is gentleness a resource of the privileged?


In this respect, my people were poor.

We fought to eat and fought each other because


we were tired from fighting. We had no time

to share. Instead our estate was honesty,


which is not tenderness. In that it is

a kind of drowning. But also a kind of air.



This poem first appeared in Rattle (#42, Winter 2013), where it was given the 2013 Reader’s Choice Award. It was also selected for the 2014 Pushcart Prize XXXVIII Best of the Small Presses.