“Grocery Shopping With My Mother.” A Poem by Kevin Powell

The Title Poem from His Latest Collection

December 15, 2022  By Kevin Powell


Dear God
please do not
take my mother
from me
any time soon
I am not ready
I do not know what
I would be without her
She has been my mother and my father
since she pushed and pulled me through her earth
the way a jagged little pill
shoves its way ’round the mouth of history
I love my mother like I love breathing air
even when she bruises me
with her words with her rage
My ma has forever bruised me with her words with her rage
When I was a horribly lonely only child
I did not understand why
she behaved as she did
But when she got sick
really sick
a few years back
I was terrified
of losing my mother
I had her
speed-dialed to the hospital
there in Jersey
and sprinted me
as fast as I could to be with her
Ma said
it was the first time
she had been in a hospital
since she had given birth
And there she was
flailing like a caught fish on a frosty metal table
in an off-white hospital gown
her belly had
swoll so big
it looked like she
was pregnant with
me another time
And that is how it began
our regular trips
to the grocery store
because ma could not
move without immense pain
without waddling
like a penguin
in the middle of a summer hurricane



Dear God
my mother does
not know that
I often walk behind her
on purpose
as she grabs
a pound of hamburger
a bag of sugar
a loaf of bread
a box of cereal
Aisle after aisle
my heart spills a bucket of suds
Aisle after aisle
my eyes spill two buckets of suds
like that day she
slid as a baseball runner would onto the floor
in her senior citizen apartment
from her favorite chair
and it took my entire back strength
to boost my mother’s plump frame
to get her up to her recliner
And before I could
there we were one-two-three-four-five seconds
her on the floor me on the floor
when she and I
stared at each other
as we may have stared
at each other when I was
a scared baby and her a scared young woman
And in that very
moment I wanted to tell
my mother what she meant to me
but could not because
my mother and I have never hugged
have never kissed
have never said I love you
And here I was the caretaker
of a person who did not care to be touched by anyone



Dear God
my mother’s legs throb bad
Ma religiously rubs ointments on them
like she is scrubbing grime from her bathtub
She repeatedly refers to herself as being sick
She says she an old woman
She says she tired so so tired
She prays to you God from can’t see to can’t see
She says you will work a supernatural miracle
and heal her body Lawd
She says blood of Jesus each chance she thinks of it
like Jesus fixin’ to be Superman
and jump off that prickly cross
My mother’s altar
is the shopping cart at the supermarket
She baptizes the handle with one of her wipes
She cusses at me
when I ask her to pull her mask over her nose
She smooshes
her worn black purse into the child seat
where I once drooped my skinny limbs
She clutches tight the cart
says it helps her balance
Ma is afraid to fall
Ma ain’t gonna fall in front of no strangers
My mother’s power
is in the steering of the shopping cart
She pushes it forward the way
a truck driver inches their tractor
through bumper-to-bumper traffic
She wobbles slowly from the cart when she
spots an item she needs
three peaches
four red apples
five bananas
a package of chocolate chip cookies
a bunch of collard greens
a carton of orange juice
I straighten the crooked cart
that ma always leaves in the middle of an aisle
Hold my pocketbook
Watch my pocketbook
my mother chides me loudly
when she wobbles from the cart
Smashed inside her pocketbook
are those wipes and tissue and
cash and coins and her food stamp card
and clipped coupons lots of clipped coupons
and her crinkled grocery list
neatly written
in blue ink
Ma has the list mainly in her head
but sometimes glances at it
when her memory
is a throwback to the beautiful little dark-skinned girl
on that porch in South Carolina
But they did not tell little
dark-skinned girls they were beautiful back then
Ma thought only
White people and light-skinned Black people
were good-looking
They did not tell
little dark-skinned girls
they could be anything
So ma thought her life was
munching the raccoon meat
her desperate father shot and skinned
Life was daddy beating her
and her three sisters and brother
and her mother
as if they were slaves on an auction block
because life for every Black was one big beating
Ma thought life was signs and railroad
tracks that told her
where she could go
what her slipped joints could not do
was being branded
“tar baby” and “spade”
and “jiggaboo” and “spearchucker”
and ugly real ugly
by the local White folks
and the local Negroes too
just because she was born tobacco brown like James Brown
Ma ain’t know nothin’
about no sexism or no classism
Ma ain’t know nothin’
about bell hooks or Toni Morrison or Alice Walker
But she knew she was Celie before
Celie was Celie in The Color Purple
is why
to this day
I believe my mother loves Whoopi Goldberg
because when ma sees Whoopi in the movies
she sees herself crashing through
the broken glass of a dream deferred
is why Black people got therapy sessions
we name
field hollers
the underground railroad
the blues
the chitlin’ circuit
prayer circles
holy ghosts
hair salons
Black Twitter
talkin’ in tongues
the soul food
we squeezed between our chained ankles
and transmitted with us from Africa to them plantations
Ma be sayin’
we don’t know nothin’ ’bout no Africa
we ain’t African
Ma don’t know Africa all up in her
whenever she talks about the fish
she gonna lather and fry
about chocolate cake
she sacredly crowns with pecans
about potato salad
she will punctuate with sweet pickles
about wild and buttery cornbread
surrounded and lassoed from scratch
Food is my mother’s best friend
because my ma
ain’t got no friends
except her sister Cathy and me
Food is my ma’s best friend
but the food has left her body wretched
like the planet
with diabetes
with high-blood pressure
with mysterious things she won’t discuss
Dear mother
you are real mysterious
with all those doctor visits
like you’re a bow-legged root woman
plotting potions
while lurking behind a sabal palm tree
Dear mother
you are real mysterious
with the inflamed whip marks of your past
held hostage in your bedroom drawer
Dear mother
you are real mysterious
while heavy living room curtains
smother your sunlight and your loneliness
But you are not alone
We are moon twins
emotionally eating our way
to the promised land
You told me food is your happiness
You begged me not to take away your happiness
I will not mother I will not
I see your beauty and your genius
in the way you boil the water
in the way you season the food
in the way you create kitchen magic
as you did when I was a boy
I smell the joy on your house dress
I feel the joy when you crunch and chew
I sense the divine when you suck on that chicken bone
And I know when the time comes
for God to look herself in the mirror
she will see you

Monday, January 10, 2022
10:14 p.m.


Copyright © 2022 by Kevin Powell, from Grocery Shopping With My Mother. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press.

Kevin Powell
Kevin Powell
Kevin Powell is one of the most acclaimed political, cultural, literary, and hip-hop voices in the United States. A poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, and filmmaker, he is the author of fourteen previous books. His latest poetry collection is Grocery Shopping with My Mother. Powell’s next title will be a biography of Tupac Shakur. A native of Jersey City, New Jersey, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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