Three Poems by Ciona Rouse

Ride or Die

Haints rode my great-grandmother's back. My mother
says she never feared them. This gall in our blood: We

all know our ghosts go with us. An overseer rode 
my great-grandmother's mother's back. When the police ride 

close enough behind me to recognize last year’s numbers 
on my tags, I would rather have a hag jump on me.

Twist my diaphragm with her long bone fingers. 
It would be easier to breathe. My mother rode unicorns,

bare-backed, unquestioning. We all know our dreams 
go with us. In a dream I rode a fire engine in a parade and waved 

at my ex in the crowd. I laughed in the morning. Everyone wants 
to look red hot riding away from an ex no matter how much 

of a memory he is. Turns out he had cancer. I forgot the sirens.
And the rush. I forgot it was too fast and loud for a parade.  

I drive a MINI Cooper, and a stranger at the Shell station
said it is obviously made for me. He’s correct without knowing. 

My ride fits me perfectly. I prayed for saints to ride my back 
back when I prayed. And even today, I say my aunt’s name 

and look for certain winged things to land on my branches. 
My mother called her sister her ride or die. My mother: still riding. 

I tried to ride the bus in my city. Nashville prefers you 
to have your own perfect 

wheels. We all know our wealth goes with us. Our wants go with us. 
Our needs in front of us driving away. Screeching, turning 

the pavement black. Some billionaires ride a rocket 
into space just to return minutes later. We all know who

really goes with us. Who really goes for us.
This, we all know.

Interrogation of the Poplar
What do you dream?

I dream a buffet of rain

seeds frolicking into the wind

my leaves pulse
slick breath into your lungs

I dream a sapling

a whittle too dull

the tongue of a saw
swallowing all of its teeth

a hammer unhinged

an ax defying gravity

I dream a frayed rope

a frayed rope unraveling

a rope afraid 
of the rebels reveling

unknotting itself or me
stretching a limb into an arm
into a hand
into fingers

I dream I lift

I unfurl

I pulse breath
wet & wondrous
into your lungs 

Interrogation of the Poplar
What do you recall of that night?

a boiling ocean, the air
an unbelonging heft never leaving

a child played ring around the rosie
just days before, giggled against my spine

the pines bowed, mud dispersed
magnolias sang a willow’s song

time whispered swift 
and fearless

he went up

ashes, ashes

we all fell down

Ciona Rouse
is the author of the chapbook Vantablack (Third Man Books, 2017). Her poetry has appeared in Oxford American, NPR Music, The Account, Talking River, Gabby Journal, and other publications. She is poetry editor of Wordpeace and the curator of several reading series in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives and teaches. She is working on her first full collection of poetry and several literary collaborations, including poems written for and displayed with the Kara Walker: Cut to the Quick exhibition for the Frist Museum (July 23–Oct 10, 2021), an exhibit which Rouse co-curated.