Ekphrasis for a Photo Found after the Flood

Sugarland, TX, 1957

The sugar factory wasn’t far from the prison,
& that’s a good measure for my grandfather:
sugar or criminal, constellations of granule or
salt-on-the-rim echo. He used cow bones to
coax the molasses away while a man plotted
his escape from nostalgia—that rabid dog of
running toward, then backing away when
memory’s sudden leash gets too close.
Affination was the process of separating a
decade from its stalk. Affination was my
mother’s hand in the syrup. Affination was
chasing the ghosts away from the furnace.
When Pedro Infante died, it rained airplanes,
& the workers gathered around to sing
corridos as they built their grief into crystal
basilicas for grocery store shelves. Refined
agringados. Abuelo’s hands went from cotton
candy to wasps’ nests & back again, dunked in
buckets of ice-cold beer to soothe the long,
mechanical days stamped on his timecard.
Back then, the clock moved like small,
rotating hammers—rapid exchange for more
& more hunger.

Ekphrasis for a Photo Taken after the Flood

After the great hurricane,
there is Isabel. Isabel with the industrial
fans giving back the pobrecita dust, drying out what’s left
of Houston’s bathwater, Isabel with the vinyl floors
peeling & curling away from the walls
like her skin does to the bones. With her cigarette
patiently keeping time. Isabel, always with her back
turned. Isabel with her stove not in frame,
the oven’s intestines spilling out indelicately.
Isabel with her kitchen island cluttered:
Maxwell House coffee containers
full of volcanic ash, pastel Bakelite bowls,
half-empty bottles of spit & water,
Crisco stacked like regret. Isabel with her left arm on fire,
Isabel with her hand in knots, Isabel with flour still
under her fingernails. With the curtains she made,
the dress she made, the pants she hates wearing
because she couldn’t make the roses come
alive on them. Isabel on a dining room
chair, waiting for her husband to resurrect
from gunpowder, dripping milk into her teacup.
Isabel & her collection of aluminum
foil, how she’ll put the Styrofoam universe back
together on those old hangers scattering the floor.
Isabel, with her body thin like an old recipe
no one can find anymore, the one for her tortillas
that keeps disappearing. Isabel, with her instructions
on how long to let the dough rest, & how long
was it? Thirty minutes? An hour?

Iliana Rocha was the 2017 Southern Foodways Symposium poet-in-residence. She is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Oklahoma. Her work has appeared in the Best New Poets 2014 anthology, The Nation, and Blackbird. Her debut collection, Karankawa, won the 2014 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry.

Images by Alex Waggoner.

Sign up for The Digest to receive Gravy  in your inbox.