Books

Jaki Shelton Green Blends Poetry and Protest on Timely 'The River Speaks of Thirst'

(courtesy of Soul City Sounds / colorized)

Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green's The River Speaks of Thirst is at once a political statement, cultural commentary, and an aesthetic milestone, a skillful commingling of galvanic activism and evocative poetry.

The River Speaks of Thirst
Jaki Shelton Green

Soul City Sounds

19 June 2020

Other

Scheduled for release on Juneteenth current North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green's new album, The River Speaks of Thirst, features archetypal imagery and resonant elocutions, invoking the history of Black oppression as well as the US's current societal and political climate calling for executive, legislative, and judicial reform. In her work, Green laments the Black struggle for equality while celebrating Black resilience, wisdom, and creativity.

On the opening poem, "This I Know for Sure", Green voices the indelible imprints of the Black Diaspora ("unmeasurable bones whispering across the Atlantic Ocean", "bellies of Middle Passage ships", "the feast of dead or sick bodies tossed overboard") while conjuring that tenable sense of promise presumably experienced by emancipated slaves: "we shed the rags of a slave into the river / our freedom skin was a shining / brand new nakedness that outshined the sun". The poem is an invocatory ode to the ancestors and a bold reminder that the African American quest for freedom is an unfinished epic, still thwarted by white racist ideologies and attitudes, systemic racism, and convenient blindness; or, as James Baldwin phrased it, "monstrous innocence" shielded by privilege.

"Madwoman" depicts that distinct brand of decorum that frequently masks a deeply rooted prejudice, particularly in the South: "the smile that erases my smile / and swallows a whole room of dead patrimony". Later in the poem, Green offers, "Your puke-stained flag is shredding / all over your sun-bleached constitution", noting the ultimate mootness of the Confederate stance while highlighting a conditioned bias that, while perhaps addressed textually by the US Constitution and its Amendments, has yet to be dismantled in the country's collective consciousness.

"A Litany for the Possessed" – featuring a guest recitation by poet and musician Shirlette Ammons – taps into trip-hop templates, Def Poetry Jam/spoken-word stylistics, and loose rap mechanics, honoring icons "malcolm ray miles martin charlie eldridge audre denmark sojourner … mahalia billie bessie … marcus gwendolyn kwame toussaint mohammad kente". It features uber-Romantic lines such as "addicts with poems stuck between their teeth / join the night pray for a vampirical moon", and channels proto-Beat sensibilities: "brothas on the down low sniffing for game / while sistas play diva bohemian princess sable goddess queen mother / high priestess of counterfeit on a corner".

The virtuosic "Oh My Brother" is dedicated to "all of my brothers who have been silenced." Multi-instrumentalist Alec Ferrell's recurrent and mesmeric guitar riff drives the track. Green's at-times unnervingly equanimous tone contrasts with the poem's volatile imagery, including a chorus-like return to the central meme of "a bullet". Green is alternately tender ("I want to be the water, the sweet oils that rub into the skin of you") and confrontational ("I dare the killer of you to remember"). Toward the end of the poem, she strikes a complex emotional stance, paradoxically blending grief and rage: "hear the sounds in your chest become a roaring ocean, / hear the butterflies cease flying, / hear the silence that will not be quiet".

"No Poetry" equates verse with justice, the aesthetic process with empathy, suggesting that where there is "no poetry", there can be no vitality, substantial reform, or attunement to the suffering of others: "For the truth brewing inside crooked hallways," snarls guest CJ Suitt, "crooked courtrooms / crooked jailhouses / no poetry / for the fog covering the blood / no poetry". The piece continues, addressing the Caucasianization of God and Christ: "For your God who is always late to every funeral of every black child / no poetry".

Green uses the final / title track of her album to wield the perennial river metaphor in universal terms. For Green, "we are all this flow / we are all this river". In this way, she contemporizes Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", closing her project with a compellingly inclusive manifesto. She yearns to "feast from [the river's] wet palms", to "empty the veins of [her] life story / into this nameless pregnant river". Green offers a vision of earthly and spiritual triumph both fiercely idealistic and grounded in realism, her crystalline oration echoed by Nnenna Freelon's melodic moans, at times reminiscent of a woman giving birth.

The River Speaks of Thirst is at once a political statement, cultural commentary, and an aesthetic milestone, a skillful commingling of galvanic activism and evocative poetry. Released at a time during which the chronicity of Black oppression is being spotlighted, when millions of citizens across the US and throughout the world are protesting for change, and organizations such as Black Lives Matter, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and Color of Change are gaining significant traction, the project is particularly timely. With The River Speaks of Thirst, Jaki Shelton Green documents the history of blackness, a segment of which is the history of the United States, if not the Americas at large – the atrocities, the triumphs, and the work still to be done.

Jaki Shelton Green's The River Speaks of Thirst releases 19 June on Soul City Sounds.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Music

Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.