21 Days/ 21 Poems: A Praise Poem

In Praise of Okra

No one believes in you
like I do. I sit you down on the table
& they overlook you for
fried chicken & grits,
crab cakes & hush puppies
black-eyed peas & succotash
& sweet potatoes & watermelon.

Your stringy slippery texture
reminds them of the creature
from the movie Aliens.

But I tell my friends if they don’t like you
they are cheating themselves:
you were brought from Africa
as seeds, hidden in the ears and hair
of slaves.

Nothing was wasted in our kitchens.
We took the unused & the throwaways
& made feasts;
we taught our children
how to survive,
adapt.

So I write this poem
in praise of okra
& the cooks who understood
how to make something out of nothing.
Your fibrous skin
melts in my mouth--
green flecks of flavor,
still tough, unbruised
part of the fabric of the earth.
Soul food.


“In Praise of Okra” by January Gill O’Neil. Underlife. CavanKerry Press, 2009.

“In Praise of Okra” reenacts the history of New World Africans in North America through praise of an often maligned fruit. From the opening lines, “No one believes in you/ like I do. I sit you down on the table/ & they overlook you,” the speaker establishes her connection through a shared history of Otherness, which culminates in the observation: “Your stringy slippery texture/ reminds them of the creature/ from the movie Aliens.”

Then, through a subtle reversal--reclamations of self and history--the speaker demonstrates the positive values associated with okra and New World Africans who have  have always "understood/ how to make something out of nothing.”

By the generous act of creating a poem, the fruit is transformed by the poet's recognition of its value, and in the act of naming, poem and fruit rightly become: “Soul food.”



About January Gill O’Neil

January Gill O’Neil is the author of Underlife (CavanKerry Press, December 2009). Her poems and articles have appeared in North American Review, The MOM Egg, Crab Creek Review, Ouroboros Review, Drunken Boat, Crab Orchard Review, Callaloo, Literary Mama, Field, Seattle Review, and Cave Canem anthologies II and IV, among others. Underlife was a finalist for ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award, and the 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize. In 2009, January was awarded a Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant. She was featured in Poets & Writers magazine’s January/February 2010 Inspiration issue as one of their 12 debut poets. A Cave Canem fellow, she is a senior writer/editor at Babson College, runs a popular blog called Poet Mom, and lives with her two children in Beverly, MA.

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