The Bitch Speaks of Fear

After Langston Hughes

there’s an ocean over my shoulder,

a blade ready to know my throat

then there’s me:

freely four, swinging my braids left to right, drumming my barrettes

i can’t spell fear

only been to a corner

of the world, but you can’t

tell me i’m not pearl

arms cast a net to catch

every dream, i’m taking


the water hugs my ankles, craves my crown

now, the knife is kissing my soft black power

i’m tied up:

Steve Urkel stiff, life on red light, ain’t you got something to do? oh, yeah

i’m supposed to camouflage

with dirt, become good friends

with hurt, pop my neck

or my pussy—but never enjoy it

i think i’m supposed to

destroy myself, get addicted

to disappearing

i’m pierced & swallowed; everywhere i look, a frown,

a laugh, if the fingers don’t point, they grab 

my frustration scales:

a thread of questions unknowing myself, a shiver of terror thick

with scripts, trust thinned out

i’ve known sharks—sharpened

their teeth to carnage me & hid

at the pit of their power, i’ve put

my funk in a chest, but here i am—

a rot dream reeking

of pleasure

i see a portal: weathered palace of offering, waiting 

for my love—tears still over my shoulder, i step forward

then there’s me:

finding fins, bitch-turned-fish making ends & sinning & swimming

Arianne Elena Payne, smiling in front of a flowerbed

Arianne Elena Payne is a Black writer, multidisciplinary creative, and aspiring historian from Chicago, Illinois. She is a 2023 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow. She has received the 2022 Graybeal-Gowen Poetry Prize, the 2022 Virginia Downs Poetry Award, and the 2019 Frederick Hartmann Poetry Prize. Her work has been featured in Voicemail Poems, TORCH, Shenandoah and is forthcoming in the Indiana Review and Hooligan Magazine. Situated in the complexities and lyricism of Blackness, girlhood, and geographies of resistance—her work strives to take Black people and their histories seriously.