This poem is from the July 3, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from je_reviens. It was sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. You can read more about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jamaican culture, and the Creole proverb online. Yes, I was named after the famous poet. Both my parents are teachers and avid readers, and they intuited some of the path ahead of me.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning grew up in Jamaica
where the warm salt air was good for her lungs
and her Creole skin tanned brown in the sun.
She was a little British, a little African, a little Indian,
and a lot of mischief wrapped in a gawky package.
Sometimes she dressed in polite gowns
and went to tea parties with her mother.
Sometimes she dressed in colorful cotton wraps
and snuck off to listen to the stories told by
the Creole maids as they did the washing.
From the books in the schoolroom
and the stories in the tropical wind
she learned different sides of history.
She learned the different literatures, too,
as rich as Christmas pudding,
as spicy as jerk chicken.
She wrote poems about what she saw,
all the bright and the dark of Jamaica,
her words as sharp as razor coral.
Her poems burrowed into the listening ears,
making people shake their heads.
While the slaves sweated in her father's fields
and gazed with burning eyes upon their chains --
when the pale, delicate British ladies
tottered off the ships to visit their Jamaican relatives --
Elizabeth watched them and understood
that but for an accident of fate
she could have been in either of those places.
Elizabeth stretched her strong tanned body
and thought of the Creole proverb:
Kau neva no di yus of im tel
til di butcha kot it of.
"A cow never knows the use of its tail
till the butcher cuts it off."
It was a warning not to take things for granted,
because you would miss them when they were gone.
Elizabeth counted her blessings
every time she ran to play in the surf.
Every time she sat down to write, she said to herself,
"Oh, this cow knows the use of her tail!"