The sour stalk—costlier than opium,
discussed in ancient apothecary tomes,

carried with silks, cinnamon and musks
from the Tangut mountains and the banks of the Volga,

smuggled across the Bosporus straits,
grown by candlelight

in sheds in Leeds and Wakefield,
and brought finally to the farmyards of Iowa—

unfurls its damp, curled leaves to raise tall red prongs
just as winter unlocks its gates.

It ripens first in every side yard beside lilac sprays,
long before garden or strawberry patch.

Maybe that’s the reason why the women take rusty kitchen knives to
the pinkening barbs, separating them from glossy poisoned fans,

to slice into a pile of crescents covered with sugar and corn starch,
to bake them hidden under pastry smooth and supple as a sheet.

My mother won best pie at the Dexter Fall Festival 2 years in a row.
When you work the dough, touch it as little as possible

Although my pie crust, without Iowa lard, crumples
into a raggedy mass I have to smash together,

although it tastes mostly like pasty goo inside lumpy, pasty flour,
I still carry rhubarb back to California, in baggies in my checked luggage.

Because we live in a made world: fields and furrows,
brocaded hallways. We sing the old songs because they sing to us.

We follow the same dirt paths through barn yards and across the pasture
because our feet love them.

And when summer evening cools into night,
we draw over our bare legs the quilts—

those kaleidoscopes cut
from boys’ shirts and cotton feed sacks,

their thousands of stitches, a net around each of us to hold
whatever tart stems we’ve made sweet enough to treasure.

Artist’s Statement 
“Rhubarb” is both ars poetica and a tribute to the forms of making that I saw tenaciously expressed among the women of my childhood in rural and small-town Iowa. I loved honoring one humble tart vegetable masquerading as a fruit, especially one that has always brought me joy and that I have missed in my adult life in California; it’s here, but much less ubiquitous. My mother, Kathy Hykes, did win the Dexter, Iowa Fall Festival pie contest in 1978 and 1979. In 1978 her winning pie was rhubarb-strawberry. Those pies were auctioned off and the money went to restore the Dexter Library, a little yellow building where I spent many hours cultivating a love for words and story. So rhubarb and the creative resourcefulness of small-town Iowa women in fact created poetry.  

Jenny Hykes Jiang’s poetry has appeared in Arts & Letters, Caesura, Tule Review, and elsewhere. Raised in rural Iowa, she has taught English as a Second Language literacy skills in Asia and throughout the United States. She lives with her husband and three sons in the Sacramento area.