Portrait of a Princess (in memory of the late LaVonda R Staples)

In days gone by I loved a woman
whose power was her voice
and whose vision she forged
from the pages of history
and healthy doses of street life.
She could tell you things about historic Saint Louis
that museums and tour guides don’t know.
Things about the old families that built the city,
whose bones built the foundations,
and whose money financed it.
Tackling any establishment was essential
and fundamentally her scepter to behold,
Her criticisms she turned on every pair of eyes,
across the Midwest,
up the eastern seaboard,
and across international waters,
Long was the journey of her torch
There was no place her light did not touch.

In days gone by we laughed and cried,
And we held mighty discourse on childhood and motherhood,
Children and education,
To my babushka she fondly granted the epithet, boyfriend,
On account of his beautiful features.
We talked of soap and cigarettes,
Where we had come from, and who we were on the inside,
Drug addiction and art,
History and psychology,
Depression and scholarship,
Domesday and legacies,
Religion and spirituality.

She told everyone she knew about her “witch friend”,
Some crazy lady who put out food for the spirits,
But she knew all too well about spirits and the gods,
When she wasn’t trying to avoid the mercy seat;
And the lwas sometimes called from that devil house
where she did time
toiling away for a lover who didn’t value her enough.
She had seen the underbelly of academia,
She was very good at walking into the underworld,
Though she would forget to come up for air.

In days gone by we made plans for the future,
We spoke of Kent and Saint-Paul de Vence,
Her dream of walking through fields of wildflowers
on an approach to James Baldwin’s estate,
making connections with people who made a difference,
who were at the crossroads of their own human revolutions,
somehow failing to realize she was at the crux
of a very large epicenter, herself,
she would make the waves
and I watched as those waves connected people
bringing her ideas to distant shores
and inciting exchanges that could not be reversed.
This reaching out to change the world
Through the parlance of the scholar’s path,
This was her great work.

In days gone by I watched her die,
And in her dying she recorded her life,
Scrutinized and analyzed death in objective fashion,
Invoking the air into her perceptions,
Without true regard for the emotional concept,
Until there was a shoulder of stone to cry upon.
How did Nostradamus die?
Books will tell us naught,
But he pulled it from his astrological chart,
And as sure as he knew his death, we knew hers.
Something she had once seen in my portfolio,
Something uniquely alien
And based on early twentieth century scifi-horror, she saw
as the new post-modern,
And decided she had to have it.

So I gave it to her one Saturday afternoon,
When other people were raiding supermarkets
Before the insanity of arctic winter storm frenzy,
And she was approaching the gate.
“You look very bright,” she said to me,
Poking my belly,
wondering if the strawberry witch
was working on pregnancy number 7.
“No,” I told her, “just fat.”
A slurring mess from the morphine twisting her tongue,
Clinging to me in the throes of agony,
Screaming out of a pain I could not stop.
With time and energy enough,
To decide to bequeath to me
The plastic blue jewelry set,
Maybe she thought it would make me look like royalty,
Or the way she longed to be motherly to me.
I had my fill of that from my own mother,
And those days have passed me by.
She yanked me by my hair,
Brushing a camphor lotion through.
What could I have possibly done to her in a past life,
To warrant this kind of treatment,
It was a question I was afraid to ask,
But she was a dying woman,
She could use me as a rag doll for five minutes.
She wrapped a scarf around my neck,
And sent me off.

I said goodbye, as I left her with the canvas.
How does a scholar die?
A shrine to the right of the deathbed,
Made up of jewelry and religion from her youth,
A collection of medicine bottles and a pack of smokes.
A growing procession of spirits as the gateway expands.


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