Damaged Child, Elm Grove, Oklahoma, 1936
—after a photograph by Dorothea Lange
She stands before a shelter of patched tin,
in a sack-like sleeveless dress
tied at one shoulder. The dress is soiled,
mere covering. All that she’s seen
caught in her stare, lips pursed
as if defying the camera. Her hair is short
and parted and pushed behind
her ears so that none falls on her face.
The only casual thing about her is how loosely
her hands slide halfway into her pockets.
A hint of breasts. When she begins to menstruate,
her mother will tear cloth for pads, and warn her
of all that can happen living in such a place,
men coming and going. The mother’s worries,
now more than food and medicine.
Days are long, there’s nothing beautiful here
except the sunset.
What is this child’s name?
Perhaps Lillian or Margaret,
something suited to her stance.
In another photograph, she is barefoot.
When winter comes there might be a pair of boots
already pinching her toes, but she will not cry.
She will not.
Gail Peck is the author of eight books of poetry. The Braided Light won the Leana Shull Contest for 2015. Poems and essays have appeared in Southern Review, Nimrod, Greensboro Review, Brevity, Connotation Press, and elsewhere. Her essay “Child Waiting” was cited as a notable for Best American Essays, 2013.