Bringing Flowers to Soledad

It wasn’t when Mr. M saw the little meadow
blooming on the brown metal table.
I’ll have such a short time with these, he said,
as I pushed a paper cup of flowers toward him.
Nor was it the way we spoke then,
about Beauty and Loss, the great themes of poetry,
Mr. H bowing to the starry faces of jasmine.
This is the first flower I’ve smelled in twenty years.

And it wasn’t when Mr. L quietly
slipped out each stalk of lavender, thin
as pencil lead, and, almost invisibly, slowly, slowly,
folded them into a sheet of paper.
Nor the way the others quietly passed him their own
lavender, studded with the tiniest velvet nubs,
wordlessly, as though he were a coyote
who would smuggle them across the border.

And it wasn’t when Mr. S insisted
he had, as a Native American, rights
to his rituals—sage, sweet corn, tobacco—
and no one could stop him—it was the law—
from taking this sacred plant back to his cell.
Mr. J had heard it all before.
I can’t listen to this, he muttered, shoving back his chair,
walking out the scarred door.

And it wasn’t even when Mr. S drank the water
the flowers were drinking.
Though with that, it began. A small wind
stirred in that windowless room and
Mr. S bit the heads off the Peruvian lilies,
crushing their pink sepals and the gold
inner petals flecked with maroon,
their silvery filaments holding up the dark
pollen-laden anthers. He chewed like a horse,
maybe one known by his ancestors,
great teeth grinding side to side,
saliva rushing, slavering, buds sudsing,
the veined rose petals, the spicy sweet peas.

He grazed like a stallion who owned
the pasture he was fenced in, standing knee-deep
in the lavish grass, his soft lips frothing with blossoms.

Ellen Bass’s most recent collection, Indigo, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2020. Her other poetry books include Like a Beggar, The Human Line, and Mules of Love. A Chancellor Emerita of the Academy of American Poets, Bass founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and the Santa Cruz, California, jails and teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University.