Rita Quillen – Two Poems


Some Notes You Hold

(There were Native American tribes who built platforms in their cornfields where the women kept watch near harvest time, singing continuously to frighten away animals.)

On a barnwood stage built by their men
above a green ballet of corn and blue curtain of sky,
the women take turns, daylight to daylight
singing and clapping, beating drums
that take their men to war.
Deer and turkey stalk the rows
unless this symphony in the silks
lifts through the tree canopy like thin smoke.
Theirs is a holy chorus:
Wolf howl, cooing doves, hallelujah magpies
cawing crows answered in a minor key
chanting ancient sorrows to God and wind.

A small girl walks with her mother
for the very first time to the field
to learn what singing is.
This here is a note, her mother says,
and sounds out a perfect sweet C
with vibrato swift as hummingbird wings.
All you need to know of singing, she says,
Whether in church or corn:
Some notes you hold, some you let go.

I have never sung to corn
but have put everything else aside
to let my voice clear the air
slicing clean as the bone-handled knife
that freed the cob from the stalk.
Melody has broken bread and beans
delivered blood red baby tomatoes
to wide-mouthed chalices,
washed mud from squash and onions
soothed tender lettuce in its cool bath
pieced a day back together to a 4 beat line
hummed the doxology of earthly delights
all the savory songs of soil and seed.
Some notes you hold, some you let go.


Upon Visiting the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming

Staring long at the painting
Paiute ghost dancers frozen forever in mid-step
around a campfire under the total eclipse of 1889
believing the dance would lead
to removal of the demon whites
I chuckle at the universe’s burnt offering–
the event and the words–
the ghost dance is pure Godsend
to a poet who can connive and contrive
art and artifice
from far smaller, baser matters,
speak to national angst
draw approving groans and sighs
from the local college poetry club
just razzle and dazzle
arabesque all the way to some big prize.

A new eclipse is coming in August, they say.
I think about back home in the mountains.
Here ghosts are no abstraction.
The hauntings are haunting
pervasive and inescapable.
So many graceless grannies
hover over supper tables
hollow-eyed gray grandpas
creak the rocker after dark.
Crushed miners and stillborns pose
Under the same shade tree along the creek.
We don’t need the eclipse
to see them.
Black or bright,
they’re on every corner
not trying to run anybody off
or have high hopes
or change history
or become a poem.


Author’s Statement on Beauty

Beauty is the bringing together of perfect shape, color, texture, sound, thought and feeling, all meeting in the same spot at the same time in such a way as to make us forget everything ugly, evil and sad for at least a few moments. It is God’s antidote to tragedy and heartbreak, a hedge against life’s bad bets. Beauty and love are the only effective treatments for madness.


Rita Quillen’s new full-length poetry collection, THE MAD FARMER’S WIFE, is from Texas Review Press, a member of the Texas A&M Consortium, and was a finalist for the 2017 Weatherford Award in Appalachian Literature. Her novel HIDING EZRA has a chapter included in the scholarly study of Appalachian dialect, TALKING APPALACHIAN, from the University of Kentucky Press.  Her previous poetry collections include HER SECRET DREAM, which received the Book of the Year award from the Appalachian Writers Association. More at: ritasimsquillen.com