The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Gary J. Whitehead

Gray Water


Gray water of the wayward
            and third-world, the weary
traveler out of underwear,

            the off-grid anchorite I was
standing naked by a basin,
            up to my elbows in it.

Gray water of the great
            unwashed, bare hands wringing,
cloths bleeding into buckets

            like gutted birds. The Gambia’s,
the Ganges’ turbid water
            slopping out of pails.

My grandmother’s
            when she laundered by hand
in spite of a machine.

            Gray water of every
washerwoman’s walk
            to and from a well.

Middle fork of the South Platte,
            the Otoe woman on her knees, leaking
a white soldier’s semen.

            Her gray water. Her red
hands squeezing,
            and on the far bank,

the whole scene curved
            in the brown eye of a bison
chewing its cud.

            Blood of a butchered
fawn in a hunter’s
            backwoods tub.

The Yellowstone’s,
            the Gila’s boiled water gone gray
with pioneer grime.

            The Choctaw’s, the Chickasaw’s
gray water. The Mississippi’s,
            full of silt, in which the Ojibwas

bathed their blankets
            and Twain’s maid rinsed ink
from his stained linens.

            The Niger’s, the Mekong’s,
the Volga’s dreggy water,
            pulled clean down highlands

and glacial plateaus to lave
            lace, jacquard, ankara, to scrub filth
out of shawl and yem.

            Gray water of every river,
lake and stream, the sinners’
            tributaries, the masturbators’,

no agitators or paddles.
            How easy to straddle a pail, decoct
a murder from a shirt,

            to twist from sheets the shame
of menstruation,
            the wetted bed,

our shit and cum.
            To mundify, to deterge.
From the gray water

            of our fey humanity,
from the dust, smut,
            and crud, we pull dripping

the piece goods of our deeds.
            A little elbow grease, a little soap,
a little water cleans us.




GARY J. WHITEHEAD's most recent book is A Glossary of Chickens (Princeton University Press, 2013). His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The New YorkerPloughshares, and The Common and has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Guardian’s Poem of the Week. Whitehead has been the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and the Anne Halley Poetry Prize from the Massachusetts Review and has been a featured poet at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and the Princeton Poetry Festival. He teaches English at Tenafly High School in New Jersey and lives in the Hudson valley of New York.


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