“All my life, in any place,/ for no reason, my grandfather’s 280 acres call out my name. Free and clear./Sister Gary, Gay, Gaynette. But all those stale breaths have gone somewhere/else. Cool dirt, open graves. I have outlived them all. My recollections/remain imperfect as I tell and re-tell the tales. As they are—or were/—not necessarily as I would’ve chosen them. A people without luster,/napworn yet proud. Unlearned, but not ignorant. The Grove Hill of memory/has plum-flowered chinaberry trees festooning the fence-line, just off/Highway 43. It’s still blooming, it still holds last year’s ornaments.”—R. Flowers Rivera
By Claire Bateman
GREENVILLE South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1 August 2022— R. Flowers Rivera, a native of Mississippi who now lives in McKinney, Texas, completed a PhD at Binghamton University and an MA at Hollins University. Xavier Review Press published her debut poetry collection, Troubling Accents (July 2013), which received a nomination from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters and was chosen by the Texas Authors Association as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. Rivera’s second collection, Heathen, was selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as winner of the 2014 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize. Her short story, “The Iron Bars,” won the 1999 Peregrine Prize, and she has been a finalist for the May Swenson Award, the Journal Intro Award, the Gary Snyder Memorial Award, the Paumanok Award, the Crab Orchard Series, and the Gival Poetry Prize. Rivera’s collection-in-progress, Gaynette, Undaunted, bears poetic witness to the life of her maternal grandmother, Gaynette Cox Flowers Pugh (1916-2019), a single mother of four who, despite her eighth-grade education, brought up three children to earn masters’ degrees. A Civil Rights activist, Pugh worked with the Mennonites, served as a regional coordinator for Head Start, and, at the age of 65, earned her BS from the University of Southern Alabama.
Past tense: clear dusks I remember a feeling, an image, grit in the eye.
A place embedded like a splinter I can’t quite catch. Grove Hill, a voice
buried within that refuses to answer back. All my life, in any place,
for no reason, my grandfather’s 280 acres call out my name. Free and clear.
Sister Gary, Gay, Gaynette. But all those stale breaths have gone somewhere
else. Cool dirt, open graves. I have outlived them all. My recollections
remain imperfect as I tell and re-tell the tales. As they are—or were
—not necessarily as I would’ve chosen them. A people without luster,
napworn yet proud. Unlearned, but not ignorant. The Grove Hill of memory
has plum-flowered chinaberry trees festooning the fence-line, just off
Highway 43. It’s still blooming, it still holds last year’s ornaments. Birds
scatter the golden berries everywhere. I know I’m nearing home. Drought.
We endured, growing from that hardening, clay soul. Ancestral daughters,
I’m still here. Just to be clear, being hot and humid ain’t suffering
and becoming the darkness at the center of their universe is not death.
Wind on a Cold Morning
The Lord hath forsaken me,
and my Lord hath forgotten me.
Feel of kindling rough against
my hands and chest generates
just enough rapture for 2618 Jefferson.
Dusty brogans leading him onward,
Mr. BK pivots round the corner, moving
past the mottled gold of the gingko.
My hello startles him back, he’s busy
getting his mind right like winter
light for another day of lashing at the docks.
The L&N streaks through the last bit of silence.
Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.
The tracks on the other side of the frozen
dirt have become an ever-present unflinching,
daily reminder that we all need to get moving.
Moving at the brink of dawn requires
discipline, being versed at finding sanctuary
anywhere, to rise up even when the body’s tired.
I quote scripture, I sing bits of song. Unction.
“Soon I will be done / With the troubles
of the world / Troubles of the world /
Troubles of the world” Rest assured,
I do whatever I must to make sure
I can provide for Ann, Dot, Sonny and Fred
one day more. I pause, remembering what
day it is—not Monday, which I never forget,
even when I try, oh, I do try, my worst.
Not Thursday when I take an extra shift of sewing
at the dress-shirt factory, raveling and reworking
some mess a white woman has left half-
done for more money than I’ll ever make.
No, today’s Wednesday, mop and polish day,
with this evening’s Baptist Training Union
as my only reward. The skeleton of the bare
pecan tree cater-corner from my porch
mirrors the outline of my mind, and
what first appears to be dead
leaves is hidden fruit waiting to be knocked
loose like towhees ready to swoop the ground.
Lift up thine eyes round about, and behold
We wake upon these mornings, determined
to make sense of the silence, and the whirligig
across the way at Miss Minnie’s boarding house
spins crazily with all our hopes—oh, oh my
how we wake upon these mornings. Minnie
steps through the screen door, nods “morning,”
nods hello, then sets to work lighting twined-up
sage, rosemary, and pine to shrive whatever
sins in which her renters may have indulged.
Aunt Moriah saunters through, on her way
to make the school ready, handing back
Minnie’s beloved jadeite coffee cup. Rooted
to the spot, I snort and shake my head,
a wild horse. Everything in a gesture:
who sent Minnie that message that we Flowers
were all that? Maybe Addie Mae, who also
principals. No matter who it was, thank you.
For whenever you bring up her people,
my children, the only talk is of progress.
Purse no longer a purse
but a portable drugstore.
Cellophaned blue-white rectangle,
Goody headache powders,
Werther’s Echte and peppermints,
half-wrapped, speckled with grit.
S&H green stamps, loose,
ready to be licked and affixed
in a booklet saved for some far-off luxury,
some day of which we only dream.
I am never without a razor,
needle and thread. How many times
have my own hands saved my life.
Bright white tissues, small blankets
saved for snotty noses, errant tears.
Camphor for chests and the fresh tingle
of coldsores, which somehow only appear
at the bottom, right corner of my lip
like a grotesque beauty mark.
These flare-ups coincide with
conversations I’d rather not have
about the small gold worlds, the stressed
clasp holding together my coin purse
filled a few dollars and coins
—only for a moment, then empty again.
I’m simply anticipating
everything that could go wrong
while I try to keep on living, taking
precaution to always be ready,
any day of the week, for I’ve seen the way
how my people live—breaks the weak.
One padded Moddess mattress
waiting to stop the flow. In my palms, I hold
tight the straps of this arsenal,
poised to stem the blood of any wound
—or that of my other pocketbook.
Eunice finally came back, no reason.
But she came home married. She insinuated,
but did not lie, that she had heard
the menfolk of Grove Hill
whispering ‘bout what to do ‘bout
her daddy. She roostered around and
back down the lane. Only to meet
Daddy Jim’s strap swooping. ‘cross her stomach,
her buttocks, her face, her thighs.
Blamed her is what Lillie Belle did. But even the wind
knew this was only a prelude to Daddy’s
hand down that Sears & Roebuck
dress. The trim-tread gleam of her fancy wrap-
wrapped-ankles shoes, right there in the dirt, where he
caught her ‘tween the legs. On that hard, hard ground.