She goes by Lurlene
because that’s easier
to wrap your tongue around
than her real name.
The same is true of most drag queens,
but under the sequins, the shine and the cigarettes,
Lurlene is more Mami Wata than male.
to watch her dance in the clubs down Decatur.
She blurs like a mist somehow,
moves like the Cancer Alley current.
We don’t drink the water.
Everybody’s got a story, a hang-up,
a lost love and a prescription,
but Lurlene captivates when she tells it
like it is, one smoky chuckle at a time.
So we pull up that chair,
we buy her a cocktail
and we watch her drink it,
breathing secondhand blue air
like water from home.
either never leave
or get out as fast as they can.
The same is true of girls from the delta,
the hills, the backwoods, the Lower Nine.
It’s not so easy to hit the road
when you were born instead
to walk on water and breathe it too.
Give any ‘gator a marshmallow
and he’s sweet as milk
for long enough to let you pass.
This is the least of my secrets.
(Believe it or not, you can learn a lot from muskrat girls,
the closest things to our selkie sisters
anyone in these parts is ever gonna see
three drinks in, down le bayou.)
The year wheel turns
on Mardi Gras down here.
It’s frozen that way now, in a demon’s rictus grin
the way your mama told you
your face would freeze.
Something’s gotta balance out
the rest of the parish,
its holiness and heat.
My cool copper skin never dries
and I can drink any bartender
this side of Pontchartrain
under the table.
Ladies prefer wormwood.
I won’t lie: I have an appetite for ‘bling.
With beads in the trees all year ’round
in the Crescent City,
who could blame us
for wanting a little of our own flash and shimmer
where the mud and the sewage swirl so thick
we never even try to get the smell out?
I have been known to sneak a marshmallow
to the big albino ‘gator at the aquarium.
It’s either that, or set him free,
and I don’t trust myself to be good.
Too many children runnin’ around in there,
so it’s the smaller rebellion for us, for now.
Mardi Gras makes it easier
to walk the streets
naked as we please
fins and finery unhidden.
People celebrate beauty then,
worship the macabre,
but don’t try that shit
in Shreveport, Monroe, Bastrop.
They’ll send you packing at best.
My mother remembers Bonnie and Clyde,
all the fear they commanded in Louisiana
before my time.
Mermaids are no less living legends,
but we don’t tote guns
unless we’re walking the Bywater
at three in the morning.
Sometimes I do just that,
circus freak, swamp girl
and some poor boy’s fascination
with my flesh
turns to fear
and so to food.
On an easy night, I’ll come to town
arm in arm with my sisters
to practice the steps we’ve learned
since so few grown folks
are fool enough to go swimming,
but most are plenty fool enough
to go out dancing.
It’s just as hard
to see the bottom of the night
as it is to see
the bottom of the river.