Frances Ruhlen McConnel


My first prose poem was about listening to jazz versions of “Body and Soul.” This is telling for several reasons: most of the prose poems that I write include riffs and all of them have a certain idiosyncratic magic that rarely exists in my lined poems, a magic I also find in jazz, particularly in jazz solos, when the music can acknowledge and play with a familiar, sometimes mundane, musical work, and magically transform it to something startling and maybe even sublime.

Thus the “riff” in Highway 15 to Las Vegas is about yucca and the yucca moth. Sometimes for me a prose poem might begin as a lined poem and this is true for both “Highway 15...” and “Lament,” both of which began as a 10 line poetry exercise I did with a class. In “Lament,” the initial impulse came from our landscape and the season of wildfires—but other impulses came in. Students asked what Through the Looking Glass was doing in the poem. Since I found myself unable or unwilling to answer, I decided to try the piece as a prose poem. One simply doesn’t have to field such questions about a prose poem.

But the advantage of writing prose poems is that you can switch subjects mid-stream and feel all the more deft for doing so. The riff on the sex antics of the tortoise comes from some vein in some layer of self that gets tapped by my muse, not me. Or so I feel I am allowed to claim about prose poetry.





On Highway 15 to Las Vegas


Along red cliffs, prickly pears whir with wasps. Background whir in our heads above engine rumination, wheels fluttering with song. Pilgrimage highway with its caravans, its migration of hopefuls. And here come the marching Joshua Trees, arms up in surrender—bandidos, coyotes, border crossers. But we are the border crossers—two grown-up girl friends and the tumbleweed. Yucca rears its unlikely candles, ablaze in the shadow of a rockpile hill. A larva inside its seed has the singular evolutionary role of hatching a moth that will roll pollen into a ball and stuff it down the gullet of its flowers. But we’re not that kind of girl-friends. Sun ricochets across our vision. Squinted vistas. Flutter, flutter-- lashes against the East. Hypnotic lines cat-cradling with our minds. You da driver; come out of this spell! I fiddle with the radio. Static, though I’m hardly trying. Our breaths circle back on themselves. The AC throws up its invisible shield.

Ahead, in a silver mirage, trucks skitter toward us. Silver mirage of neon buzzing Nevada! Two Hundred Slot Machines! First Stop! Turn your head-- Last Chance! On the steering wheel, you tap out a lonesome, nomad beat. I hand you the bota bag. Like a bee at a blossom, you tip up your face to our first earth-mother’s milk, first and ultimate luck of the desert--water.





The day is lonely as a mountain landslide where no one hears the crows’ commotion. In the curve of the empty riverbed the air ripples with heat. Who cares about my heart, clanging out of tune? Does the tumbleweed care, bounding down the bank of the arroyo? Does the tortoise care, snug in his medieval suit of armor, whooping and grunting and jousting shells with rivals, trying to tip them over to the broiling sun, then stomping out a courting dance so pugnacious he might get tipped himself by his lady. Or she by him. A drama so slow you’d think a chess game had stalled in awe at the upending of a queen. A drama that could take years.

Tell me about it--Little Alice, crying in a wilderness of restless stones.

Debris flows come with the first shower after the wildfire and the earth slips its shell like a dewy chick that has battered its way free of the old forms. If my heart says let me out, who will open the door? So long cooled, the fires; so held back,


Both of these prose poems are forthcoming in the anthology Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems & Poetics from California.



fmcconnel.jpgMy new collection of poems, The Direction of Longing, was published this summer by Bellowing Ark Press. It can be ordered at A chapbook of haiku and other short poems, white birches, black water, was published in 2006 by the Alaska fine letter press, Bucket of Type Printery.