We sink into the dust, Baba and me, Beneath brush of prickly leaves; Ivy strangling trees--singing Our last rites of locura. Homeboys. Worshipping God-fumes Out of spray cans. Our backs press up against A corrugated steel fence Along the dried banks Of a concrete river. Spray-painted outpourings On walls offer a chaos Of color for the eyes. Home for now. Hidden in weeds. Furnished with stained mattresses And plastic milk crates. Wood planks thrust into thick branches serve as roof. The door is a torn cloth curtain (knock before entering). Home for now, sandwiched In between the maddening days. We aim spray into paper bags. Suckle them. Take deep breaths. An echo of steel-sounds grates the sky. Home for now. Along an urban-spawned Stream of muck, we gargle in The technicolor synthesized madness. This river, this concrete river, Becomes a steaming, bubbling Snake of water, pouring over Nightmares of wakefulness; Pouring out a rush of birds; A flow of clear liquid On a cloudless day. Not like the black oil stains we lie in, Not like the factory air engulfing us; Not this plastic death in a can. Sun rays dance on the surface. Gray fish fidget below the sheen. And us looking like Huckleberry Finns/ Tom Sawyers, with stick fishing poles, As dew drips off low branches As if it were earth's breast milk. Oh, we should be novas of our born days. We should be scraping wet dirt with callused toes. We should be flowering petals playing ball. Soon water/fish/dew wane into A pulsating whiteness. I enter a tunnel of circles, Swimming to a glare of lights. Family and friends beckon me. I want to be there, In perpetual dreaming; In the din of exquisite screams. I want to know this mother-comfort Surging through me. I am a sliver of blazing ember entering a womb of brightness. I am a hovering spectre shedding scarred flesh. I am a clown sneaking out of a painted mouth in the sky. I am your son, amá, seeking the security of shadows, fleeing weary eyes bursting brown behind a sewing machine. I am your brother, the one you threw off rooftops, tore into with rage--the one you visited, a rag of a boy, lying in a hospital bed, ruptured. I am friend of books, prey of cops, lover of the barrio women selling hamburgers and tacos at the P&G Burger Stand. I welcome this heavy shroud. I want to be buried in it-- To be sculptured marble In craftier hands. Soon an electrified hum sinks teeth Into brain--then claws Surround me, pull at me, Back to the dust, to the concrete river. Let me go!--to stay entangled In this mesh of barbed serenity! But over me is a face, Mouth breathing back life. I feel the gush of air, The pebbles and debris beneath me. "Give me the bag, man," I slur. "No way! You died, man," Baba said. "You stopped breathing and died." "I have to go back!...you don't understand..." I try to get up, to reach the sky. Oh, for the lights--for this whore of a Sun, To blind me. To entice me to burn. Come back! Let me swing in delight To the haunting knell, To pierce colors of virgin skies. Not here, along a concrete river, But there--licked by tongues of flame!
From The Concrete River, published by Curbstone Press. Copyright © 1990 by Luis J. Rodríguez. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Detroit—where the weak are killed and eaten.
—T-shirt slogan, circa 1990
. . . the 33 year old woman . . . leapt to her death . . .
from a crowded bridge that . . . connects Detroit . . . with its
famous island park, Belle Isle. She was trying to escape the
300-pound man whose car she had accidentally bumped into.
According to police, the man had smashed her car windows
with a tire iron, dragged her from the vehicle – stripping off
most of her clothes in the process – slammed her against the
hood of her car and pounded her with his fists. Deletha Word
. . . could not swim . . . She jumped into the water 40 feet below.
—James Ricci, Los Angeles Times [August 31, 1995]
The road to the afterlife—There was . . . a river that had only
one bridge across it . . . This bridge was guarded by a dog that
jumped at souls and made many of them fall into the river and drown.
—Bruce G. Trigger, The Huron: Farmers of the North
Not really a river at all,
but a handshake between two Great
Lakes, Huron stretching to embrace
Erie in its green-gray grasp. You
stitch the liquid boundary of
a city dismantling itself,
bricks unmortared, spires sagging, burnt
out structures razed to open field.
Prairies returning here, foxtails
and chicory, Queen Anne’s lace sways;
tumbleweeds amble down Woodward
Avenue, blow past fire hydrants,
storefronts and rusted Cadillacs.
You are the mirror into which
we plunge. Towers of a stillborn
renaissance bend to admire their
vacant beauty; automobiles
built in Mexico catch the chrome
reflection of your waves. They speed
across the bridge to the island
whose willows spill their tears against
your breast. Darkness closes our eyes;
the park empties, bridge bears a chain
of headlights. Perfume of exhaust
drifts over your blackened currents;
cars jostle for their place in line.
Not the fist of one man but
the sucker punch of a city
taking scrappy pride in its bruised
countenance. One bumper kisses
another like gunshot; the town
explodes. You swallow the blood of
a woman’s shattered cheekbone, pressed
to metal hood, scorched by engine’s
heat. Who wanna buy some of dis
bitch—she got to pay fo’ my car.
So naked in our headlights. Her
manicure rakes bridge’s edge—some
bystanders yell, Jump!—she lets go.
You catch the women who plummet
from the sky, seeking safety in
your watery clutches. They root
inside your skin; lungs swell with your
essence. Arms wrestle the eddies
but finally surrender, give
themselves fully. Guardian dog
of the bridge leans muzzle over
the rail, slavering. The whole pack
looks down, red eyes gleaming. She’s lost
to us, but we hear her singing
forever in our dreams, gurgled
lullaby for this drowned city.
From Embers (Red Hen Press, 2003) by Terry Wolverton. Copyright © 2003 by Terry Wolverton. Used with permission of the author.
At the desk where the boy sat, he sees the Chicago River. It raises its hand. It asks if metaphor should burn. He says fire is the basis for all forms of the mouth. He asks, why did you fill the boy with your going? I didn't know a boy had been added to me, the river says. Would you have given him back if you knew? I think so, the river says, I have so many boys in me, I'm worn out stroking eyes looking up at the day. Have you written a poem for us? he asks the river, and the river reads its poem, and the other students tell the river it sounds like a poem the boy would have written, that they smell the boy's cigarettes in the poem, they feel his teeth biting the page. And the river asks, did this boy dream of horses? because I suddenly dream of horses, I suddenly dream. They're in a circle and the river says, I've never understood round things, why would leaving come back to itself? And a girl makes a kiss with her mouth and leans it against the river, and the kiss flows away but the river wants it back, the river makes sounds to go after the kiss. And they all make sounds for the river to carry to the boy. And the river promises to never surrender the boy's shape to the ocean.
From This Clumsy Living by Bob Hicok. © 2007. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used with permission.
Vicksburg, Mississippi Here, the Mississippi carved its mud-dark path, a graveyard for skeletons of sunken riverboats. Here, the river changed its course, turning away from the city as one turns, forgetting, from the past— the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up above the river's bend—where now the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed. Here, the dead stand up in stone, white marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand on ground once hollowed by a web of caves; they must have seemed like catacombs, in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor, candlelit, underground. I can see her listening to shells explode, writing herself into history, asking what is to become of all the living things in this place? This whole city is a grave. Every spring— Pilgrimage—the living come to mingle with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders in the long hallways, listen all night to their silence and indifference, relive their dying on the green battlefield. At the museum, we marvel at their clothes— preserved under glass—so much smaller than our own, as if those who wore them were only children. We sleep in their beds, the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped in flowers—funereal—a blur of petals against the river's gray. The brochure in my room calls this living history. The brass plate on the door reads Prissy's Room. A window frames the river's crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream, the ghost of history lies down beside me, rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.
From Native Guard: Poems by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright © 2006 by Natasha Trethewey. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
What the mouth sings, the soul must learn to forgive.
A rat’s as moral as a monk in the eyes of the real world.
Still, the heart is a river
pouring from itself, a river that cannot be crossed.
It opens on a bay
and turns back upon itself as the tide come sin,
it carries the cry of the loon and the salts
of the unutterably human.
A distant eagle enters the mouth of a river
salmon no longer run and his wide wings glide
upstream until he disappears
into the nothing from which he came. Only the thought remains.
Lacking the eagle’s cunning or the wisdom of the sparrow,
where shall I turn, drowning in sorrow?
Who will know what the trees know, the spidery patience
of young maple or what the willows confess?
Let me be water. The heart pours out in waves.
Listen to what the water says.
Wind, be a friend.
There’s nothing I couldn’t forgive.
From Gratitude (American Poets Continuum, 1998). Copyright © 1998 by Sam Hamill. Used with the permission of Eron Hamill.