Cardinal Sin by Jonterri Gadson

The turning point in this poem, “It wasn’t my place / to teach other women’s children / about death” keeps me awake at night. That’s what good poems do—they resonate long after we’ve shut the book, turned out the light. Jonterri Gadson’s poem is full of lines that stick to the psyche, especially that first line, “I don’t love my son / the way I thought / my mother should love me.” We’ve all experienced small failures that turn out to be much larger than we first realize, and it’s never easy to admit to a mistake, especially one that impacts other people. The speaker of this poem is honest and direct and openly admits failing her son in this one moment, inadvertently forcing another parent to do the job for her. Denial is too easy these days, a powerful rebellion lies in the truth and the honest assessment of Gadson’s speaker.

Cardinal Sin

I don’t love my son
the way I thought
my mother should love me

so I handed him a shoe box
to put the dead bird in
and shut the door.

It was a mistake,
not to be sure he buried it,
not to grab the children

gathered at my back door
by their shoulders
to push them into a half-circle

and a prayer.
Should have made them
take turns digging the hole,

each one of their pudgy hands
fingering stiff red’s box
to lower it to the ground.

It wasn’t my place
to teach other women’s children
about death, so my own son

snuck the shoe box
into his backpack,
dead-eyed bird rolling

like a plastic prize ball,
told the principal
this cold puff

of field bird
had been his pet.
See him

clutching a coffin
the size of his feet,
eyes wide over a pout,

giving a man a reason
good enough to hold him.

                                  after Louise Glück

Rebellious Women in Poetry (brought to you by rebellious women) is made possible by rebellious women. “Cardinal Sin” first appeared in Vinyl Poetry, and is included in Pepper Girl, a chapbook published by YesYes Books last year. Jonterri Gadson is Debra’s daughter. A Cave Canem fellow, she is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing MFA program and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. She currently serves as the Herbert W. Martin Post-Graduate Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Dayton. Introduction is by Jessica Dyer, a writer & editor who lives in Chicago.

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