Scorched Earth


“Scorched Earth” by Tiana Clark is the third-place winner of the 2023 Previously Published Poem Prize, selected by Palette editors. We’re honored to share this powerful poem with you.

This poem was first published in The Map of Every Lilac Leaf: Poets Respond to the Smith College Museum of Art.


Scorched Earth

after Kara Walker’s “Buzzard’s Roost Pass”

Black breasts split within a civil
war battle-scape. Black breasts hewn

and hacked off like discs of liquorice
butter patted over a field of white men at war.

Sherman’s army penetrating Georgia.
Sherman marching to Savannah,

not giving a shit about slaves.
Does anyone know where a black woman

is and is not the linguistics of a landscape:
raped, mastered, controlled, conquered, hoed, mined,

fucked? Kara, why did you cut her up
like that? Kara, you be knowing

how the blacky body becomes
and is becoming the violent earthwork

of shadow and fissure, such discrepancy
of ink, and I’m looking at your black silk-

screen thinking about the beginning
of Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue”:

Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night
we drink and drink
we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie…

Kara, have you read this poem? Kara,
what about that torn forearm above the frame

reaching back in the negative space? Her head
stippled with cannon bursts, cut flower bombs

piercing the profile, dead silhouette. Kara,
would you still not answer me if I asked you

about longing? About your process? I get so tired
when people ask me about this one poem that I wrote.

The truth is: I lied. Did I have to be there
for it to still hurt me? Am I allowed

to conjure the possibility of pain to protect
myself from the pain? Imagine

the shape of my trauma like blacker breasts
pointing in different directions across the gorge

(of my partly        disembodied           body).

Did it have to happen for it to be true?
The truth is: I felt like I heard it.

The truth is: I still pull away from my lover
in public. That’s my real life. I don’t trust

affection. I don’t know who’s looking
and not looking at me. I don’t know

who is going to read this either, but I want
them to like me. Kara, I want you to like me.

For that to happen, should the poem
end with my hand reaching for you, too?

Should the poem end with you touching
my black beasts? Whoops, I meant breasts!

Sorry. Oh, sorry for saying sorry so much.
Do you still want to touch my blackest

breast after I’ve apologized? And let’s say
I keep apologizing and then I make

this mistake again…will you still want
to touch me? Do you want to see me

touch me? Sometimes, I touch myself
because I don’t know if I exist. Once,

a white guy in high school asked to see
my brown beauties, kissed my chest for hours.

I didn’t want to do it, but I did it,
and I’ve done that so many times.

Does that make my breasts powerful
or fierce or political or, or…

is there anything new they want to say
about the art of black femmes?

If so, will you say it now? I’m exhausted
and bored by this list of lazy adjectives.

Say something new and then shoot me
in the face three times, or better yet, hang

me in my own cell and say I did it. I dare
you. I double dog dare you. Do it—Do it!

No one will believe that I was murdered.
Do it. Kill me. No one ever trusts a black

women’s mouth. Kara, what that mouth do
in that lithograph stuck inside a locked room?

Singing Stratocumulus clouds—I guess
the weather ‘bout to change. Oh, I see

one fang in her mouth. I got sharp teeth
like that too. I leave a mark when I bite

myself. I draw black blood and paint myself,
my black bitch head over my black bitch history.

When I was little, I prayed to God for tig ol’ bitties,
but they never came, instead I’ve got small boobs

and large areolas that I’ve just now stopped
being ashamed of. It’s important to be specific

when you ask God to win the war or who’s
gonna win the war. Which side? All the same

when the war has always been your body
on the brink—I love my black breasts! I love

my black breasts! I love my black breasts!


—originally published in The Map of Every Lilac Leaf: Poets Respond to the Smith College Museum of Art

Tiana Clark

Tiana Clark is the author of the poetry collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Clark is a winner for the 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award (Claremont Graduate University), a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, and the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She is a recipient of the 2021-2022 Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship and 2019 Pushcart Prize. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, Oxford American, The Best American Poetry 2022, and elsewhere. She teaches at the Sewanee School of Letters.