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 latest book is Like a Beggar. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and The New York Times Magazine.