top of page

4 poems by Rachel Richardson

2 essays by jason b. crawford,
on the poems of Rachel Richardson

Smoke Cento


I remember when I was no more than eleven years old, traveling down to Fort Wayne to visit my grandmother’s sisters. Along a mostly empty highway, the music low, my grandfather driving with one knee up, toothpick hanging off the right of his lip. Once we arrived, we were welcomed into a house full of barbeque fresh off the grill and karaoke blazing on the makeshift stage.  What stuck most to me was the smell of smoke that lingered between the fingers of everyone. My grandfather and grandmother did not smoke but from Aunt Thelma down, everyone else smoked like the world was ending. Maybe it was, maybe it still is. 

          Everything here in this poem is covered in smoke, permeating through each line. It pulled this memory from me, the smoke of my Aunt’s backyard as she sang timeless classics like Etta James’ "At Last" or when she pooled her sisters together to recreate the Vandellas like they did when they were children, each sister placing themselves into the harmony. The timelessness of their voices feels like the timelessness of these lines all pulled from decades of poetry asking us about yesterday, begging us to choose tomorrow. 

         “I, too, sing America,” stated Langston Hughes in efforts to state his humanity, to plead to the humanity in all of us. What happens when we burn down this ideal, this memory and nothing is left but smoke? Does then “The smoke, too, sing?” Possibly that is the point, through this fire and smoke and clearing of the brush comes humanity. The backyards brimming with beloveds singing songs most of the younger ones do not know and most of the older ones care to never forget. 

         Or possibly the fire here is the war and smoke is how we take cover from all that has been burned. “Smoke loved the earth so much / she wanted to stay forever,” is it possible the smoke is here to protect us in this poem? Smoke is untouchable, intangible, but could easily kill us. But in this poem, it doesn’t, it stays. It turns into birds after gaining an understanding about them. It asks us the questions of loss as if to gain a better understanding of its own loss. It studies our philosophies, our poets, our brilliant minds to cope with something, what we are unsure of. 

        The space here is asking for us to be forgetful, to wade, to become the smoke that inhabits our lives. So is that it? Is the smoke just a student of the craft? Or is it the angel shrouding us from harm, allowing us to to sing another song around family we soon too shall lose? Is it the memories choking us out of spite? At the end of this poem I am wondering what is left in the smoke or if the smoke ever really even existed at all.


Somedays I wonder what dying feels like. Somedays I wonder what might be after death, if anything. I question the books, both biblical and scientific. I question what came before and what will come next. The existence of everything proves the endless possibilities of nothingness. I think that is what I fear most, what brings me to this realm of questioning, the chance that everything I do, all the things I have written, every person that I loved, all of that could have been for nothing. If that happens, then what? What am I living for? What am I living in spite of?

          Usually I am brought back by small moments. A poem that makes me smile or cry, a stupid text message from a friend, another that might be in crisis and in need of my help. It is the small moments that help ground me despite everything weighing me down. In this poem, we are given the permission to love everything no matter how small it may be: the dry mountain, the air, the grass, the possibilities. When given the chance to sit in those spaces of smallness, the space around us also shrinks to a manageable size. The problems of identity and what comes next start to float away, even if just for a moment. Like I said, things like living become more possible.

          But what happens in those small spaces that allows us to break free from the dread? How do we start collecting the tools we need for survival? This poem feels like that scavenge, looking for places of joy to replace the places of doubt. Even from the beginning, “Today I love everything: the packed-up pack / by the door,” we are brought to a space asking us to be tender to ourselves through the things we keep. Asked to look at the openness of the things already around us, how we can interact with the world in the same way. I understand smallness, here we are forced to understand the worth of this smallness as well.

          Somewhere in us, there must be an ocean, at its shores a ripple pushing and pulling, calming us. The only way I fall asleep now is with the pulse of the ocean bleeding from my phone. I find it to be relaxing, the sound of waves. Is this one of those smallnesses that keeps us intact? The noticing of little things like the smell of the wind or the sound of the highway. Maybe not an ocean lives in us but the wind, the highway, the smell of rain us poets cannot stop talking about. In this, there is the gratitude we continue to seek, searching for within this poem, that smallness. 

          Maybe I have been incorrect the entire time, maybe within us is the sun, the considerer of bringing life. The one that feeds the grass, freckles our faces, warms the tip of our scalps. The poem is not questioning the sun rather embracing it. Pulls it into the realm of smallness, of possibles. The sun breeds new hope into us, as it rises we know there is a tomorrow. Even in the spaces I feel like dying or start to wonder what would be on the other side, I think to the sun. I think about tomorrow. I wonder what smallness I would miss if I were gone. 

bottom of page