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It is hard to name a river. Who in fact has the right? Born millennia before us, the river is uncharted, its name inherited, its origins more mysterious than where it is headed.
Black folks are—and have always been—heading towards an ever-deepening embodiment of freedom. North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green takes that end as her starting point in her new poetry album, The River Speaks of Thirst.
Released on Juneteenth of this year, Green's album adds to the siren chorus of Black ancestors, poets, resistors, lovers, and laborers who have waded through bitter waters: not to arrive at home, so much as to arrive at each other.
To speak as we, is not to negate the I, but rather to accompany it. Green opens her album with all of us present. At the end of the first track, Green places us at a Jubilee scene kin-deep; we're in Galveston Texas standing alongside grandparents, parents, and children hearing for the first time they were free.
Mothers kissed hope into the air above babies' heads.
Grandmothers and grandfathers stretched prayers into a sky
that would not bend.
Men ask, "where will this freedom live?"
Children ask, "What does this freedom taste like,
what does this freedom smell like,
Mama, tell me, what is freedom gonna feel like?
Green's dedication to collective unity is felt sonically, on the page, and across the globe. In addition to writing eight collections of poetry—Dead on Arrival, Dead on Arrival and New Poems, Masks, Conjure Blues, singing a tree into dance, breath of the song, Feeding the Light, and I Want to Undie—and being published in over 80 poetry anthologies, Green facilitates writing retreats for women writers in Arizona, North Carolina, Morocco, and Ireland. Sisterhood and solidarity are necessary conditions for the alchemic work of turning poisons into medicine so that Black women the world over can heal ourselves.
As we journey together, haunted and exhorted by the call of freedom, Green's calm and knowing voice serves as both guide and griot through the albums' coursing metaphors. Steady, sure, and merciful, Green's tone across both hopeful and anguished verse opens a generous space for others to speak through her: little girls silenced and abused in the church yard, witnesses mourning brutal lynchings, unbowed daughters full of righteous indignation. Green has in some way been all of these women. Through her, I catch the persistent whisper from our forebears, reminding me that I have never been alone in this body.
"… becoming more and more an eclipse of freedom. We are all this flow. We are all this river."
Green's invocation of a collective ancestral spirit is not an attempt to achieve an ascendant disembodiment—an "all's well that ends well" rising above the ashes—rather, her songs become a conduit of the diaspora. We are indeed situated within our bodies and borders, but we are not limited by them. Throughout The River Speaks of Thirst, diaspora works as a kind of poetic logic:
"They are everywhere whispering, holding up this house that dares to ignore them."
"We are all the poems rattling the ghost bones of the middle passage. We are all the poems our ancestors carried from sea to shining sea."
Language becomes a vessel. Through poetry, those who Green conjures are allowed to pass through time, and maybe even survive it. With poems like "Oh, My Brother," "This I Know for Sure," and "Madwoman," the album covers vast distances and jumps through time, swiftly moving from a playground in Ohio, to the hold of a slave ship, to a Jubilee celebration in Galveston, to the cloying attic of a house full of family secrets. Green's verse mimics the diaspora; it holds many bodies alive within it, allowing each to remain distinct and yet somehow intertwined.
Green has no desire to invoke the sort of metaphysical transcendence that serves to sanitize the grotesque and hard-won particularities of Black experience. She carefully avoids the stringent and austere rhetorical devices (compact conceits, bridled use of language, abstract vocabularies) that often cultivate that specific sort of alienation.
Whereas diaspora seeks to renegotiate the limits of the body, disembodiment seeks to negate the value of the body all together. But what does that mean for a person who was once considered to be only a body, available for exploitation?
When Green says, "I want to undress my Sunday body" in "Communion of White Dresses," it is not to ditch the experience of Black girlhood. Rather, Green chooses to liberate Black girlhood from gendered and racist constraints. In doing so, she allows those who have loved much and suffered much to continue our pursuit towards an expansive life in communion with all things. This is how she can arrive at the startling description of the Atlantic as a fertile force in the opening track and get away with it.
While acknowledging realities and histories, "… sharks following our human cargo, waiting for the feast of dead or sick bodies tossed overboard... our blood is the red that stole the blue of the ocean," Green also recognizes that the trauma of the middle passage created conditions into and out of which the creative resiliency of our ancestors birthed new forms of kinship: "We could understand the dance of the trees, the tremble of the water." Poems like "No Poetry" and "I Wanted to Ask the Trees" make the claim that we are linked together and to our natural environment by necessary survival.
Appearances by poets and singers Jennifer Evans and Nnena Freelon stud the album and add variance to the soundscapes—Shirlette Ammons provides a sophisticated streetwise cadence on the more upbeat track "A Litany For the Possessed," and CJ Suitt's energetic and quick associative dynamism lead on "No Poetry." But the best composition on the album is the title track.
Here,a traditional call and response is invigorated and jazzed by six-time Grammy-nominated singer and composer Nnena Freelon's incredible vocal talent. Her voice free falls and undulates through blue notes, repeating Green's words but imbuing them with a range of emotional resonances. The poet and the singer's back and forth creates space, and distinction, but also relationship. Through the call and response, the final track mirrors the reflexivity that lies at the heart of this project and at the heart of trauma and healing, death and rebirth.
Behold in the reflection in the water:
The other daughter of the confederacy, the bastard progeny who is simultaneously the rightful heir to the South and the feared rebel who seeks its demise.
The oak and poplar trees, recruited as instruments of racial torture and yet are lynched themselves: "Who will measure the rings of ropes that wrapped around your waist, your shoulders, under your arms, beneath your head?" I wanted to ask the trees, did you forget to breathe…"
A Black woman calmly speaking of her anger, or is she speaking of the resentment of the white woman? Or both?
Green and Freelon repeat to one another, "Like you, like me, [the river] also struggles to remember it's own birthing, it's own flow." By lending our stories and lives to the river, it may rediscover its source.
As I listened to the album I kept trying to name the river, in order to locate all that had crossed over it, traveled down it, and drowned in it. In the last track, Green calls the river nameless, but I can't help but think the river's true name has always been freedom.