poetry · stories

Red Dress Special: An Indigenous Love Poem for Valentine’s Day and Every Day

Bring me flowers whiles I’m livin’ /
Then don’t bring them when I am dead

– Peetie Wheatstraw, “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living” (1941)

“They didn’t have one, but I wanted a red dress for tonight,” Olivia added. “I wanted fire. I wanted blood.”
“You need a man,” Elsie said.
“Correct,” Olivia said, tilting forward on five-inch heels to plant a kiss on Elsie’s cheek. It was the first time Olivia had greeted her with a kiss, rather than one of her usual intimate-feeling touches. They were out to have fun, away from their ordinary cage of sickness and death.

– Edwidge Danticat, “Dosas” (2019)

the poet and her cat

Red Dress Special

Bring me a red dress to wear while I am alive.
Let me dance a red dress special with someone
who takes me home and
drops that dress straight down to the floor, but –
bring me someone who carefully picks it up, too, and
gently folds it in the morning
whether it is silken or leather, jingle or lace.
Bring me someone who tucks me in before leaving at sunrise.
Bring me someone who doesn’t leave at all.
And whether I am with a lover or none,
I want my red dress while I am alive.
I want to wear red paint
smudged into the fullness of my lips
applied in a hurry with a finger on the subway
in full anticipation that it will be kissed right off
only if – and precisely how – I want it.
Bring me ochre to wear across my eyes in the shape of
ancestral adornment,
a superheroine’s mask.
Bring me flowers while I’m living,
and I want my red dress to wear while I am alive.

Erica Violet Lee (2022)

This poem is a response to the ubiquitous “red dresses” often hung on trees or in windows with clothes hangers as a visual, material memorial for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The image of red dresses left empty by the bodies of women who might have worn them evokes a sense of devastating absence. In this poem, I aim to recenter presence and reignite the senses of Indigenous sexual and embodied agency, desire, sensuality, power, and protest in the act of putting a red dress on my living nêhiyaw body.

I wrote this poem in conversation with the 1930s St. Louis Blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw and his song “Bring Me My Flowers While I’m Living“, as well as the above excerpt from the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat‘s short story “Dosas” from her heartrending 2019 collection of essays, Everything Inside: Stories.

This poem is my Valentine’s Day 2022 gift for the Black and Indigenous girls, women, Trans, Queer, and Two-Spirit readers of my words. It is my wish that you do not save the precious, beautiful things in life for special days some time far off in the future that may never come. Do not wait for a lover; wrap yourself in all that love you long to give away to others. Let us celebrate. Let us wear our red dresses while we are alive.