“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 About race.”
I spent what light Saturday sent sweating And learned to cuss cutting grass for women Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned Difference between their mowed lawns And their vacuumed carpets just before Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter Than a joint and asking me in to change A few light bulbs. I called those women old Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair Without my help or walk without a hand At the base of their backs. I called them Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead Now, dead and in the earth I once tended. The loneliest people have the earth to love And not one friend their own age—only Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss Them around, women they want to please And pray for the chance to say please to. I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job Is to look at the childhood I hated and say I once had something to do with my hands.