Black Madonna


“Black Madonna” by Crystal Valentine is the winning poem for the 2021 Emerging Poet Prize, selected by Kelli Russell Agodon.

From the opening line, I learned hunger from my mother, “Black Madonna” is a meditation on beauty and motherhood bringing in elements of nature, spirituality, and the two distinct and different perspectives. From the breathless moments I had as a reader of this poem, Yesterday a silk, flared dove landed/like a piece of air on our back porch.//She stared at it for so long, its world soured red, to the speaker’s tender voice feeling as if she was talking directly to me, I was completely taken into the world of this poem and did not want to leave. Beautiful and tender in every way, an absolutely stunning poem in every way. —Kelli Russell Agodon


Daughter’s testimony 

I learned hunger from my mother.
Sunday’s feast spread out like a drying

prayer on the dining room table:
cow’s neck, pig feet, a garnish of

shaved lamb. Different creatures of God’s genesis strangled
into sleep, steamed out of their innard pink just to calm my

immaculate need. This is how she mothered.
Spooning me whatever her bare, blessed hands

killed was her favorite form of worship; a stinging
ritual she returned to no matter the cost or season.

Yesterday a silk, flared dove landed
like a piece of air on our back porch.

She stared at it for so long, its world soured red.
My mother doesn’t understand the purpose of

beauty, doesn’t know where to make the first
incision, or how to feel for the base of beauty’s

skull. In the book where she’s from, every
thing has a command. Hers is to open.

I watched silverware squirm in her grasp, set
in a firm heat of knowing. On her plate, fish

grew soggy from their own fluids. Hunger is a
kind of sermon; to see a lonely thing and want

to make it a part of yourself. At her worst,
my mother is merely a child of God.

Crystal Valentine