By Jericho Brown
“O Blood of the River of songs,
O songs of the River of Blood,”
Let me lie down. Let my words
Lie sound in the mouths of men
Repeating invocations pure
And perfect as a moan
That mounts in the mouth of Bessie Smith.
Blues for the angels kicked out
Of heaven. Blues for the angels
Who miss them still. Blues
For my people and what water
They know. O weary drinkers
Drinking from the bloody river,
Why go to heaven with Harlem
So close? Why sing of rivers
With fathers of our own to miss?
I remember mine and taste a stain
Like blood coursing the body
Of a man chased by a mob. I write
His running, his sweat: here,
He climbs a poplar for the sky,
But it is only sky. The river?
Follow me. You’ll see. We tried
To fly and learned we couldn’t
Swim. Dear singing river full
Of my blood, are we as loud under
Water? Is it blood that binds
Brothers? Or is it the Mississippi
Running through the fattest vein
Of America? When I say home,
I mean I wanted to write some
Lines. I wanted to hear the blues,
But here I am swimming in the river
Again. What flows through the fat
Veins of a drowned body? What
America can a body call
Home? When I say Congo, I mean
Blood. When I say Nile, I mean blood.
When I say Euphrates, I mean,
If only you knew what blood
We have in common. So much,
In Louisiana, they call a man like me
Red. And red was too dark
For my daddy. And my daddy was
Too dark for America. He ran
Like a man from my mother
And me. And my mother’s sobs
Are the songs of Bessie Smith
Who wears more feathers than
Death. O the death my people refuse
To die. When I was 18, I wrote down
The river though I couldn’t win
A race, climbed a tree that winter, then
Fell, flat on my wet, red face. Line
After line, I read all the time,
But “there was nothing I could do
In Terrance Hayes’ “A Small Novel” (one of the under-discussed poems from Wind in a Box) Hayes writes: “On its blank last page I write the poem // ‘The Blue Langston’ which begins: ‘O Blood of the River songs, O song of the River of Blood,’ / and ends: ‘There was nothing I could do about Race.’”
After reading the poem, Brown said that he guesses that he got a little frustrated by the fact that the book had all these exciting personas, like “The Blue Baraka” and “The Blue Seuss,” yet it only gives us the beginning and ending of what would be “The Blue Langston.”
Brown wanted that poem to exist in full because of his love for Langston Hughes. Hughes is a figure so many people refer to as “Langston,” not because we ever knew him and not because we mean any disrespect by using his first name. We say, “Langston,” and each of us thinks, “my Langston.”
Jericho Brown said there’s a diversity of viewpoints and experiences among black poets that defies any single narrative. But there are cultural influences, like Missouri-born Langston Hughes’ use of the rhythms of jazz and blues in his poetry, he said.
“Being black affords you the opportunity to see things that others might not be able to see, to give you experiences that others may not have,” Brown said.
Jericho Brown grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, and worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans before earning his PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. He also holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Orleans and graduated with a BA from Dillard University in 1998.
He was a teaching fellow in the English department at the University of Houston from 2002-2007, a visiting professor at San Diego State University’s MFA program in spring 2009, and an assistant professor of English at the University of San Diego. He has also taught at numerous conferences and workshops, including the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. He is currently an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Since June is LGBT Pride month, Jericho Brown is the first of three LGBT poets that I will be featuring on Tuesdays for the rest of the month.