PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


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.