I live in an 1830s mill worker’s house on the Patapsco River in the picture-postcard part of Ellicott City, MD. A year ago, Truth Thomas, guest editor for our Winter 2012 Social Justice issue, sat at my dining room table. Before we got down to business with Linda Joy Burke, an LPR contributing editor, two things occurred.
First, Truth heard a train rumbling along the tracks on the high bank forming the other side of the river and ran out to the front porch. He watched it go by with all the delight of a small child. Then, after he came inside and Linda Joy joined us, he told us about the time he was looking in the window of an antiques shop down the hill from my house and two white men driving by in a blue pickup truck hurled racial slurs at him. The juxtaposition of those two things tore my heart.
The latter occurrence served as an impetus for Truth to learn to “speak water,” a term offered with a smile but no precise definition. And made me want to make absolutely sure that I got the right person to review speak water when it came out. That was Joseph Ross, who not only knew about prejudice from being a gay white male but could also turn that into poetry about the African-American experience, as amply demonstrated by “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God,” published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue.
When I asked Joseph if he might be willing to write a review, he said he would be happy to do this. No need to send a review copy. He already had speak water sitting on his bed stand, waiting to be read. Once he finished reading it, this was what he wrote:
If the word “scripture” means “sacred writing,” then speak water is, in a sense, scripture. Biblical images weave all through this powerful collection. The poems dare to both lament and celebrate, they have both memory and vision.
As in the Bible, speak water divides into two sections. The first, “The Dry Land Earth,” uses images from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. The second, “Hand Dances at the Well,” draws largely from New Testament images. But these poems are not religious in the traditional sense. These poems use biblical images, looking back, in order to focus the reader on the present world. This is the collection’s strength: these poems witness and call. They describe our human condition in sometimes searing, sometimes playful language.
The book begins, as you would guess, with a poem called “Genesis.” The poem opens with the biblical creation mantra “In the beginning…” and then hurls us into the present, or near-present.
In the beginning, God made heaven, earth
and Shalanda “Sha Sha” Haywood, born in
Brooklyn, August, 1972—died in Maryland,
July, 2010. None of this you will remember
“Genesis” continues as a kind of creation story, or a genealogy. We learn of a family’s losses and its humanity.
“What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” continues the Genesis imagery in a humorous way. Taking the tempting voice of Eden’s snake, we hear a new version of seduction. This snake flirts with Eve, calling her hips “wide as sky,” naming her a “goddess.” Sadly, we never hear Eve’s response. But the snake urges relentlessly. You can almost see him winking as he says, “Just let me introduce you / to a little nibble. I’m sure God will understand.”
Among the most moving poems in this section is “Auntie.” This poem celebrates a woman’s strength and love. We learn that she “parted coupon seas / at the Kroger.” The speaker and the woman “rode all over segregation’s / feathered carcass.” Finally, in a tender closing, the speaker “snuggled in her side like a rib / returning home.”
I couldn’t help laughing out loud while reading “On Flat Langston’s Escape from Busboys and Poets Plantation.” Here, Thomas writes of an event in the Washington, DC poetry scene where a cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes was stolen from a restaurant. This poem is hymn-like in its four-line stanzas and echoes Hughes with its careful rhymes. Thomas stays true to his justice themes as well. The cutout is, after all, liberated from a “plantation.” One almost wants to shout “Hallelujah!”
In the second section, “Hand Dances at the Well,” Thomas continues with poems that move because of their carefully crafted quality. Echoing the first section’s “Genesis,” this section begins with “Sunday Kind of Love,” which fuses the first miracle in John’s Gospel, the wedding feast at Cana, with a modern woman’s challenging life.
Shayna reads the Word and takes
the story of that first miracle as
serious as unpaid electric bills in
The poems in this section are replete with New Testament images and language. We get hints of the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel of Mark, Judas’ thirty pieces of silver, the need to born again and more. Thomas uses these images with a light touch. If these poems preach–and they do–they are not preachy.
We are treated to both craft and insight. In “Sermon on the Block,” he tells us:
Blessed are the homeless who find ATM asylum for
their offering kingdom does not sleep nor slumber.
Blessed are those who do not mourn the death of paychecks:
for eviction shall overlook them like the Passover angel.
“The Third World” struck me as a powerfully written poem using the image of Mary standing at the foot of the cross as an entry point to consider the effect of lengthy incarceration on a prisoner’s mother.
Woman behold thy son–thy daughter, eighty-sixed in 8 by 6,
leg iron limp–wait, growling gut–wait, food arms wagging
steel door lips for bread of birdcage shit.
This compelling book closes with three poems that provoke the reader to consider the power of race, memory and art itself. In “Revelation,” we hear the African-American game of the Dozens in a reflection on race.
You so black,
eclipses wear you
This clever poem ends with a warning and celebration:
so black–so so so
eggplant, banana black, red-
boned, peanut butter, you can
This beautiful book closes with thoughts on the power of poetry and art. “Intersections” recalls a reading series of the same name in Washington, DC.
…on a snowplow rumbling
night, art wanders in off the street
to hold its own hand…
We see an art here that
will not “be good.” It will
interrupt you when you are speaking
and not say “excuse me.” It will duck
inside your door and eat up all your
cookies because it is hungry. It is
always hungry—especially here in
Anacostia’s abandoned mouth—
Thomas has created a strong and beautiful book of poems here. For those who don’t know biblical images, some of his descriptions might not land where he wants. For those who are turned off by biblical images, this might not be their book either. But if one gives these poems a chance, they can do what the best poems do: take us deeper into our own lives and deeper into the world.
In his review, Joseph captures the same contrasting aspects of Truth and his world that I witnessed that August afternoon at my home. But he cannot reproduce Truth’s speaking voice from a print book. Since Truth is a singer-songwriter as well as a poet, he deserves to be heard. Here he is reading his work at our Salon Series event. Listening to the speak water poem “What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” there was pure pleasure.