Rita Dove


She sweeps the kitchen floor of the river bed her husband saw fit
to bring home with his catfish, recalling
a flower—very straight,
with a spiked collar arching
under a crown of bright fluffy worms—
she had gathered in armfuls
along a still road in Tennessee. Even then
he was forever off in the woods somewhere in search 
of a magic creek.

It was Willemma shushed the pack of dusty children
and took her inside the leaning cabin with its little
window in the door, the cutout magazine cloud taped to the pane
so’s I’ll always have shade. It was Willemma 
showed her how to rub the petals fine
and heat them slow in mineral oil
until the skillet exhaled pears and nuts and rotting fir.

That cabin leaned straight away
to the south, took the very slant of heaven
through the crabgrass and Queen Anne’s lace to
the Colored Cemetery down in Wartrace. Barley soup
yearned toward the bowl’s edge, the cornbread
hot from the oven climbed in glory
to the very black lip of the cast iron pan…
but Willemma stood straight as the day
she walked five miles to town for Scotch tape
and back again. Gaslight flickered on the cockeyed surface
of rain water in a galvanized pail in the corner
while Thomas pleaded with his sister
to get out while she was still fit.

Beebalm. The fragrance always puts her
in mind of Turkish minarets against
a sky wrenched blue, 
sweet and merciless. Willemma could wear her gray hair twisted
in two knots at the temples and still smell like travel.
But all those years she didn’t budge. She simply turned
one day from slicing a turnip into a pot
when her chest opened and the inrushing air 
knocked her down. Call the reverend, I’m in the floor
she called out to a passerby.

Beulah gazes through the pale speckled linoleum
to the webbed loam with its salt and worms. She smooths
her hair, then sniffs her palms. On the countertop
the catfish grins
like an oriental gentleman. Nothing ever stops. She feels
herself slowly rolling down the sides of the earth.