Artist Statement: Based around my genealogy research, this project has grown from the lack of attentive records on the lives of people of color. I use the “beau present” form to invoke the names and memory of my ancestors, as this form requires every word in the poem to be derived from the letters of a person’s name, which serves as the poem’s title. Tapping into the power of names and naming, I take on their imagined voices, and the psyche(s) of their communities as I conceive them into and as present. As Tom Dent states, “History is not in the library; history was, is, and will be our lives.” I like to play with stereotypical depictions of Black-ness, and sci-fi, fantasy, and horror tropes in art and pop culture, as my love for Star Trek and playing D&D has inspired my writing almost as much as the work of my family and the artists of color who keep me living.

 

Oscar Joseph LeBlanc & Ophelia Louise Washington

                                                  “beau présent” for great-grandfather born in New Orleans in 1888
                                                                            & great-grandmother born in Haiti around 1891


According to Louisiana census records, the parents of Lillian Lucille Stella LeBlanc, my paternal grandmother, lived together as 
common-law husband and wife in New Orleans for a little over ten years. Hexed by a neighborhood voodoo lady who kept the cursed 
band of his hat in a jar on a shelf in her home, Oscar spent the last twenty-four years of his life institutionalized, dying in Jackson, 
Louisiana at the East Louisiana State Hospital for the Insane. Other sources suggest that Ophelia struck him in the head with a cast-
iron skillet, which resulted in the mental issues he experienced thereafter. 

listen. the neighboring spirit ate
through his hat. put LeBlanc, Oscar J—

who is less and less a substance
to ingest at this point in the ritual—

in East Louisiana State to waste,
where we are wont   to plague.

listen. the neighbor, her incantation was
strong—stronger than a single spirit’s—so tell us

who—how can a pistol—pearl or not—
help Ophelia. help Oscar?

in Louisiana and Haiti, a hat is a hat
is a hat? bitter? is the ash of the ghost

of Ophelia?   we taste it now.
one of Lillian’s sons has a little

one.    in the now, Ophelia, slip
us a piece of paper. people in gris

et blanc. signs, once begotten,
begin again in the hearer, though

one can sass. those who hear us
can’t see   us three in a hospital

wall. while we spirits operate,
sign contraries, recall—who else can

slip through these people, this paper—
but Ophelia—who uses up  

a potion’s ghost-pallor
to the bitter   ash

 

Thomas Painter Ross

                                   “beau présent” for 2nd great-grandfather born on April 15, 1843 in Mercer, Pennsylvania

Liberia, once described as “the terminus of the Underground Railroad,” was a 150-acre settlement established in Mercer by Thomas 
Painter Ross’ grandfather, Richard Travis, in 1825 for runaway people of color. After the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the entire 
community, including Thomas Painter Ross and his brother, John, evacuated to Canada to ensure their freedom. Richard Travis 
died the year Thomas was born, and their mother, Catharine Ross (née Travis) died when he was five years old.

meet them in Ontario.
men mean pain.

                     roam North.

home is a man    torn past    a tree
in rope.    a thorn.    a mother’s ire.

a name paints    a person—
not me—    a map.    as soon as some

one terror eases,   another
pair of men, in tatters, team in.

their memories stream.

some men mean.
same as throat can mean:

         horns, roast, horse, post—

time passes the same as a man
sent to shoot his son passes—

in the street. another man sees
his teeth.

Josephine Ruth Walker

                                   “belle présente” for great-grandmother born in St. Francisville, Louisiana in 1904

Josephine Walker (née Ruth) is said to have left her son, Isaiah, and her two daughters, with extended family in St. Francisville 
while she left to search for her children’s father and Isaiah’s namesake. Over fifteen years later, she finally returned to find her 
children grown with families in New Orleans, where she immediately resumed her relationships with her children and 
grandchildren. Whether she ever found her children’s father again remains unknown.

wake her.    shake her
open.    I see her son.

write   that she is not
a saint.    not the parish

seraph   who seeks   He
who is not there. she was

ripe with Isaiah.    woke
to whispers.    who eats—

ate—to satiate    one?

hone the truth.     a son
seeks a Ruth.     a prophetess

who returns to his steps.
our sense of kin    I sense

when I wake.    note what
I inherit—what I want to

strike—or wake her with.

 

 

Shaina Monet is a New Orleans native. Winner of the 2018 Iowa Review Award in poetry and the 2017 Vassar Miller Poetry Award, her work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Yemassee Journal, Unlikely Stories, and Sundog Lit. She has poems forthcoming this year in The Iowa Review and plans to complete her first book this fall. She currently serves as a poetry editor at Bayou Magazine.