Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Rosa Alcalá






I try to tease you
out of memory but I come too
late in the day. I climb a machine 
to mend a snapped thread and 
fall in. You’ve been on your feet 
through the night shift, 
you say. I don’t want to talk
about it. You gesture, help me 
to the door, settle me on the chair. 
You float away through a closed 
window. Your hair gets caught 
in the vent’s lint and now
it’s white. We are circled and rung by
our worn dresses in the spin
cycle. All the televisions 
are set to Good Morning America,
yours to Despierta,
América. You reject 
donated afghans that mimic
heirlooms. You won’t put
on your glasses or use the phone. 
Under the dinner tray’s dome
there might be soup, but it’s already
cold. What you can’t hear is always
an insult. What if I read your hands 
to learn what it means to rove,
that middle process before
thread can become the bedsheet
on which you lie unbidden 
by history.  I study
stern girls from good Puritan homes
who worked in the Lowell mills. 
Aren’t I like them, worshipping
in the factory owner’s church, sitting 
with the sick, writing hymns and poems? 
Isn’t this a borning room, for birth 
but also death? Aren’t my questions 
the metal brush that rips 
the guide’s hands
as he dehulls flax? Aren’t I the



Ode to Cheap Taste

Holy is a house of cheaply-framed photos 
hung too high. Call it tacky, but when is the divine
ever at eye-level? The clumped mascara, the shimmery shadow 
that is holiest of all. What is elegance but a fear 
of desire. A Jericho of canned vegetables
from Shop Rite’s Can Can sale. The stuffed animals 
on the bed of a grown woman. I have to worship now 
only my own ascension? Riding down the log flume: 
isn’t it a sacrament? A hot dog, hold the 
nostalgia? I will die empty with my abstractions, 
my mother never would have said as she lay the night 
on the floor of her condominium, looking up
at the studio portraits of her children—the sailor suits, 
the flimsy 8th grade graduation gowns—until 
we stepped out of them and held her hand 
and told her, “You may go now. You may
go.” As she prayed into the carpet
her last wish, that we buy her a coffin even the back
of the room could appreciate, that Las Tías 
would run their hands over and say, look how devoted
they were to their mother, look how much
they loved her. 



The Matrilineal Line

In my meanness I hear the mother of my mother and her mother 
before her, the cold cellars and flat pillows of their hearts. The single current 
of anger that ran through their voices, each daughter forever through time 
believing herself a burden. How else to be if you were a girl for just one day, 
lifted your skirt in the river and felt against your legs the power you’d never be given
to leave. Babies would soon come, pulled one after another from their little pits 
of crying, and a husband’s wet trousers scoured on river rock hefted perpetually 
onto lines. And what else to block out the sun but your own raw hands? They had 
daughters to have someone, my mother and her mother and her mother 
before her. They wanted more than river, to sit alone for a minute and imagine 
the ocean, something they’d heard of once, its salt like in a pot of potatoes, its swirl 
of foam. That in imagining they might be carried away—from the entrails of rabbit 
cast into fire, a husband that rose in the dark and in the dark fell into them—but someone
once said, whatever took their bodies, even in their minds, was a sin. Their desire 
to imagine is what brought them to me, and I, given the privilege, cannot but grind 
my own bones into a paste for the blooming wound of the next generation. The idiopathic
condition of my spine, its deterioration, isn’t it a family portrait? A matrilineal line?


Author photo Margarita Mejía

Rosa Alcalá is a poet and translator whose most recent book of poetry is MyOTHER TONGUE (Futurepoem, 2017). Her poems have been featured in numerous publications, including Best American Poetry 2019 & 2021. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship, and runner-up for a PEN Translation Award, she is the editor and co-translator of New & Selected Poems of Cecilia Vicuña (Kelsey Street Press, 2018). Currently she is a Consulting Editor for the University of Chicago Press’ Phoenix Poets Series. More from this author →