Seven Prodigious Poems by R. Flowers Rivera

valerie macewan dead mule



As I lectured about Okies and dust bowls and

the Great Depression, my students and I watched

CNN on a mute, wall-mounted behemoth.

I scoured images for recognizable landmarks

—dilapidated bridges, towering casinos, stretches of

man-made beach, just one wind-whipped sign

capable of geographically confirming

my homeplace. Stored cell phones numbers

cast up toward heaven like backsliders’ testimony

(with exactly the same effect). Then one-by-one,

we received proof of life,

confirmed, safety of both life and limb.


So we began

washing linens, laying out

giant bath bars, our thickest towels,

collecting clothes and toiletries, buying

whatever we lacked, while preparing

red beans and rice and impromptu crab boils.

We opened our doors and our humanity—this once,

genuinely grateful—temporarily and honestly

having forgotten why a four-hour drive

had ever been a necessary ingredient of flight.


Domesticity and close quarters took hold.

Grown folk arguing in oh-so-childish ways,

teenagers using washcloths doused with 409 to clean

white leather kicks, continually being told

what various non-mortgage-paying parties won’t eat

as they laid in supine anticipation of

my arrival from work to cook and serve

their supper. I should definitely mention children,

attitude-ridden children, surly and passive-aggressive

children with no bedtimes, and their throwback daddies

holding the den, the couch, the remote hostage.

I made a pallet in the walk-in closet and hid.

No one made any pretense about housework. But

the phone rang and rang and rang us

awake way past midnight. Our rough hellos

met by an inexorable silence, and click.

(My mother abandoned her refugees,

cashed in a forgotten voucher to Sedona.) I, too,

must admit: I just wanted those people gone.




In the days before, when you were you, alive, and I had not become me,

you were the refined uncle of books, delicately sculpted, razor-tongued.

Many years escaped before I knew what no one ever said. Of course,

there were clues. Brief visits. Decorous tables. San Francisco. A photograph taken

at Fire Island. Decanters and goblets. A satin robe. Opera. Your hands

said more than your words. You are dead three years now, and I have yet to write your book.

Questions plague my house. Didn’t you witness enough of yourself in my being?  I mean,

I don’t know what I mean. Genealogy, genetics. Theories fall apart. The world is flat,

it has an edge. I saw you today. Not you, but one that could have been you. A Hindu man,

beautiful. Coal skin. Impeccably dressed. Impatient with the sun. He was carrying

an umbrella. Intimations of the body: horse, crystal, rock, powder. A bitch’s brew to medicate

joy against pain. The pen will not behave, the paper is in revolt. For you,

drugs, religion, home became. Ritual, symbol, myth. Your death, a heart

attack, surprised no one. Anachronisms rarely walk the earth unscathed. AIDS

is the word my family does not say. Your car in the driveway. The driver’s door

open. One foot upon the pavement. Hands upon the wheel. Still life. This is how

you were posed. The last time I saw you, you asked for a book of poems, Rita Dove’s

Mother Love, I did not send it in time. I hope this will do.




for Bessie Smith


Nip and tuck

that woebegone lip

as the pink flesh falls


fueling the machine

of song.


Powerful lady

trace the sadness

tote it across the stage

called your life.

Loose yourself,

take ahold

this integrity called craft.


Lexicon of soul

lay it all down

make them know

what it feels like

to be


Once they’re rapt

In your stirrin’

be still

don’t say

a mumbling word.




has no place

in such an earnest smile

but amidst your own


there’s always a market for

a mean woman.




Half-sleep, half-waked

my shutter eye clicks.

A room crowded with fringed lamps,

an antimacassared chair.  A six-paneled door

grounded against thin vertical stripes.

Heavy oak dresser, a sepia-toned

lithograph of an actress.  Delicate

white neck.  Wicker chair

burdened with a mound of clothing.

African violets give birth

to a veritable jungle on the window ledge

as they drink polite sips of morning

light.  The numbers turn slowly.  Time

almost still.  A rattan chest turned nightstand

holds a mason jar, filled with water, less

three small swallows.  Damask and lace pillows.

Dust slanted blinds.  Rows and rows

of books, most nursing cracked spines.

My breathing long as the mattress

is wide.  The house settles and sighs.

The furnace’s white noise has worried

the mauve candle away to hard pink tears.

The swag of the valence forms an eye-

brow above a shaitan waterstain.  We stare

at each other.  Who will blink first?

I’m scared to shut my eyes.  Blink

closed.  Darkness transmogrifies into stone

ladies with pubic hair manicured

more neatly than the lawn.  Blink open.

My hips are cradled like a motherless child

where the sagging double bed dips.

You must.  I will

remember.  I will remember.

I won’t forget.  My breath.

This room, this calm.




I want to feel your daffodils.

A phrase escaped from a dream,


one eye shuts. Focus. I fumble the buttons

if the tape recorder on the floor


beside my bed. There are no other words.

But there is urgency. I must clasp


my mind around the stroke of each letter

before the emotion drifts


away. I want to feel your daffodils. I trip

free of the tub,  mumbling like a lunatic.


My legs, my back.

A conniption of rivers


racing toward the floor. I find pen

but no paper. Then paper, but no ink.


Shake the pen. Curse whatever god

is handy. I want to feel


your daffodils. Each time, the words seem

like a present I don’t deserve.


More reason to believe

that this time is the last. I want


to feel your daffodils. This is what it means

to be a servant of breath.




The berth of the distant road calls

slow your roll, but bald tires speed,

racing alongside outcroppings of wisteria,

one length behind a waxing, alabaster moon.

Pull aside, woman, pull aside.


Stopped. Body rigid, belly flat.

First she opens the car door, then

soaked linen, button by pearl button,

laying bare dew-drenched skin.

Visions of an icon, the Black Madonna.


Heat slathers over her extremities

like wax, a hot steam descends

stripping the irritating

vestiges of a dog-day drive.

Pull aside, woman, pull aside


the moist cotton between

your thighs. Sponge clean

your sacrifice to the night.

Rivulets of love roux run dry.

“I am the Black Madonna.”


She murmurs as mania leaps,

twirls between her shoulder blades.

Exhausted, she squats beneath a live oak.

With nature’s ink, she draws shadows

in the dust—a future that will never dry.




Beyond the oval blue

                window—a bleak November.


Denuded ash trees

                             whisper a horizon.


Burnt matchsticks, a char of soldiers

tramping toward the vanishing point.

Surrender! they warn—shouting at the sky.



       a defiant leap of green

between the airstrip and a concrete mind.



        the quarter moon is talking

back to the sun.


Straight ahead is dappled

                                        red, a harsh orange, yellow.


The air above is mottled

                  green, blue, a thin purple.



                   smudges pretend to be clouds.


I aver that I am Southern woman from Mississippi even though I am now an expat living in Singapore. When I go home for visits, I stock up on Camellia red beans, Tony Cachere seasoning, and grits. I’ve known I was a Southern every since I heard my Grand say, “That girl married for light-skin and “good” hair, now she’s trying to be surprised that her baby is stupid.”

 A native of Mississippi, I completed a PhD at Binghamton University and an MA at Hollins University. My short story, “The Iron Bars,” won the 1999 Peregrine Prize. I have been a finalist for the May Swenson Award, the Journal Intro Award, the Naomi Long Madgett, the Gary Snyder Memorial Award, the Paumanok Award, as well as garnering nominations for Pushcarts. Currently, I am a Lecturer of Literature and Composition at the Center for American Education in Singapore.

-R. Flowers Rivera