"all the nets we make between us"


By Yolanda Wisher

Ms. Wisher wrote this poem for the 7th Safety Net Resiliency Initiative Community of Practice event on March 17, 2021. We encourage you to listen to the audio recording at the bottom of the page (scroll down).


there's no ocean in montgomery county

so aunt tab used to get

one of her friends who could drive

to take us & cousin des to atlantic city

where we could eat the day like cotton candy

seduce jellyfish out the water &

run laugh-screaming across the sand

there's no ocean in montgomery county

but our house on north wales road

could feel like a pirate ship

with no laws & little justice

our father wore an albatross around his neck

while our mother wore a crucifix

& only the sirens of the suburbs

knew a song that could lull the sea monster

of their sorrows back to sleep

there's no ocean in montgomery county

but you, little black girl poet

dream of writing poems on sails

you are shipwrecked & bound to land

that has never felt like yours

though your ancestors walked here

rode the train here

here where your black face

still provokes slurs & sympathy

where you often turn to salt

with sadness & shame

there's no ocean here

but there is an ocean of us, in us

a red sky friday we can't avoid

trade winds ubiquitous & punishing

an ocean full of hollers & hollow hells

that will take centuries to discover

a bottom our eyes will never evolve to see

langston said the world is a big sea

each of our traumas a jonah

the boats of our mothers' bodies

don't always hold all of us

the water of the world is brackish

& full of ghosts


there's no ocean in montgomery county

but i was born into an asbestos sea in ambler

on weekends when we escaped

our father's violent storms in north wales

the ambler house was a safer shore

where a pantheon of women

guarded our little girl minutes each day

though they never knew the dangers

coagulating in soil & water

the coral reefs of chrysotile

beneath grams' house

there's no ocean in montgomery county

but there was a bermuda triangle

between home & not-home

a gulf threatening & gaping

with family grudges & hazardous waste

& we were fish

our bodies full of water & sun

our bodies precious & precarious

tossed weekly in the wide-open hurt of the water

the fibers of our tenderness

rubbed away in jagged currents

making us slippery & hard to hold

we fell through cracks & broken windows

pain turned us into particles of sand

too many to catch


the net of antrea

one of the oldest fishing nets in the world

was found in finland in 1913

the same year my great-grandmother

christine johnson

was born in king george county, virginia

christine came to montgomery county at 16

the oldest & only girl in a family of singing boys

she could sing through her cooking

she could heal through her cooking

like the net of antrea

the net of christine

was made from the bark of willow trees

forests that date back thousands of years

like the net of antrea

the net of christine was lost

sunk fathoms deep beyond death

buried beneath the clay unheard

but unlike the net of antrea

the net of christine was never found

through radiocarbon testing or site excavation

was seldom documented in photographs

& never cataloged in museums among antiquities

the net of christine unraveled

in rose hill cemetery in 1985

& the ocean finally rose for my family

in montgomery county

sent us scattered far & away

some of us trapped in eddies of grief

some of us trapped in shallow pools of get-high

in the absence of her arms

we had to find other ways to hold ourselves together

to create tighter meshes of love between us

to tie knots in our spirit that won't come loose

there's no ocean in montgomery county

but there are nets of spruce root, wild grass,

hemp & hair, green flax, pawpaw, water reed

nets of latticed love, skintight sincerity

nets of bone & blood made from the

thin dust of first meetings & long-winded listening

nets that pull us in like lighthouses

nets that pull us together like starfish & oysters

our promises hidden but hardened to pearls

nets of norristown & north wales

nets of colmar & conshy

nets of pennlyn & perkasie

knots of mary & marvin

knots of amy & anthony

knots of miss susan & miss delores

of big sam & sister judith & mama yvonda

all our hairnets, our kitchenettes

our clarinets & bassinets

our planets & sonnets

there is no ocean in montgomery county

but you can pull in the horizon

like a school of violets

with all the nets we make between us