This poem by Pat Ranzoni uses the communal experience of quilting to help a young woman deal with the loss of her home and family while at the same time being stitched into a new family and country. The tradition of quilting often pieces together fragments of the past to make something new, which here is both a literal experience and a metaphor for welcoming the stranger into the community, making a presence out of absence.
Of her poem, Ranzoni writes: “This ‘birth square’ is the first in a quilt made for a newly-welcomed granddaughter, an unaccompanied minor asylum seeker from the DRC, met through my daughter’s volunteer work at the Portland Expo in 2019, leading to a connection and the offering of a new home, family, and friends which this quilt documents. She graduated from high school in 2022 and is studying at a Maine college. She wants to learn how to embroider and make quilts, and she is teaching her American family the art of African cooking. They enjoy singing and laughing together.”
—Betsy Sholl, Maine Arts Journal Poetry Editor
KEEPING HER WE KEEP THEM
I shall never forget them she learned to say in English
with Lingala and French. Maman and Papa, her birth parents
buried back in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Quilting her story, seeking asylum, the long jungle walk
and slosh across the top with its iridescent moon phases and
stars from a stashed dress blouse, how could I honor them and
Africa, from whence she started, but in a square at the left
of row one? Honor their presence and their kind of absence
in all pertaining to her life?
Swaddling her infant self I would sew her across their
imagined laps on my used and saved Atlantic blue suede-cloth,
off an appliquéd “Fiddlehead Artisans” Afro print continent,
making a spectral surround of stitched dashes with equal spaces.
An airy suggestion of hereness though goneness with only their
bowing heads, black floss braids almost too small to work, and
French-knotted beard, visible to us. Hers, a chocolate bit caplet
of spirals peeking over a tribal swatch become baby blanket
from my trade-bead cache found on the far Oregon shore.
Her parents’ only shapes in see-through outline stitch around
them, as a protective bubble, as long as these threads endure.
The quilt will be her ferry out of Kinshasa city, a spirit
elephant transporting her away or back, at her command, if she
ever needs to go or stay. Her dreamland cloud, like the brand
new magical bed she earned for herself serving hotel guests
on square 22 in row four.
The cellular memory of her young African mother and
father she brings with her wherever she goes—in her bearing,
her singing, her determination to survive, go, get there, be safe,
Keeping her we keep them, greet them by greeting her.
Thank their being for hers
* * *
through the old old way of this new family quilt.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Patricia Smith Ranzoni is poet laureate of Bucksport. Her work has appeared most recently in the 2022 Island Journal and in the Italian journal Tellūs, Quaderni di Letteratura, Ecologia, Paesaggio (1 2022).
Image at top: Quilt square mentioned above.