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The River Speaks of Thirst, by Jaki Shelton Green, with guests Shirlette Ammons, CJ Suitt, Jennifer Evans, and Nnenna Freelon. Released June 19, 2020. ℗ 2020 Soul City Sounds. Phil Venable, Executive Producer. Engineered, arranged, and produced by Alec Ferrell. Clearly Records, Durham, NC. Mastered by Nick Petersen at Track and Field Recording, Durham, NC. Design and layout by Clearly Media. TT: 53:03; $10 on artist's bandcamp: https://jakisheltongreen.bandcamp.com
"We are the mornings that broke with our living and our dead, fastened together," Jaki Shelton Green declares in "This I Know for Sure," the opening poem on the North Carolina Poet Laureate's debut album of poetry, The River Speaks of Thirst. Released on Juneteenth of this year (which also happens to be Green's birthday), The River Speaks of Thirst provides poetic insight into the African American experience, both historical and present-day. Pairing her words with soundscapes and music (provided by Grammy Award-winning Nnenna Freelon, among other featured artists), Green emphasizes the through-line of time and the inherent connection of the living to the ancestors (generations "fastened together"), posing questions about how we confront the past and what this means for the present.
"This I Know for Sure" follows American slavery from the Middle Passage to Juneteenth. Green describes the "scattered bones" of those who died on the way to enslavement, bones which sunk to the bottom of the ocean, but which never disappeared: "On Juneteenth," Green reads, "dead bones came alive." Freedom came for the living as well as for the dead. "We are the ancient prayers answered," Green continues. The present generation incarnates the hope of the ancestors; meanwhile, the ancestors incarnate the memories of the present. Green shows that past memory does not just exist cognitively but also physically, in our very bodies, in our very bones.
Green also uses the recurring metaphor and personification of nature (as hinted by the album's title) to depict this relationship between the past and present. In this same opening track, it is not only the dead bones of the ancestors who came alive on Juneteenth, but also nature. "The wind knew," Green states, "and whispered it to the butterflies." Nature – alive, itself – is an active participant in human life: The wind not only knew of freedom but celebrated it and spread the word. At the same time, nature is also a physical connector of generations. For example, as Green describes in a later poem, "plantation grounds [still] scratch the soles of my feet."
But the relationship to nature that Green depicts is complicated, and this is perhaps one of the most interesting and striking concepts that Green explores throughout her album. In "I Wanted to Ask the Trees," one of the last tracks, Green confronts the sites of lynchings. "Were you there? Did you shudder?" Green asks the trees, both genuinely and accusingly. "Do you know mercy?" Green questions nature; it is not necessarily an ally. If the wind knew about freedom and was able to spread the good news, why didn’t the trees recognize the atrocity of lynching? Or, if they did recognize it, why didn't they do anything about it? Why didn’t their limbs break? If they knew, why did they allow themselves to act as instruments of evil?
Of course, this raises the broader question of Divine intervention (if the wind and/or the trees knew, why would their Creator allow this to go on?). Perhaps more importantly to us, it raises the question of human intervention: If the wind knew, and the trees knew, then certainly the white slave owners and lynchers knew, too. Why, then, did they act as instruments of evil?
It is not a naïve question, nor is it exonerating, and Green emphasizes the racial evils and cruelty that persist today, as well. In the taunting "Letter from the Other Daughter of the Confederacy," she calls out the current defense of the Confederacy and Confederate flag, and in "Oh My Brother," addresses the recent murders of unarmed black people. She makes it clear that "the past is never dead; it's not even past."
Green reads in a voice at times calming and gentle, at others, haunting and forthright. She is accompanied by moaning and nature sounds in some poems, a bass and backbeat in others. Half-way through the album, in "A Litany for the Possessed," featured artist Shirlette Ammons speaks in a strong slam-poetry style over drums and a synthesizer, and in the concluding and title poem, "The River Speaks of Thirst" (which alludes to Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"), we have the opportunity to hear the strong and rich voice of Freelon (who lives in Durham and has toured with Ray Charles, Ellis Marsalis, and others), who responds to Green's reading in song.
Green's poetry is heavy and complex, so it is difficult to listen to the album all the way through without stopping to process the content (each track definitely requires several listens). That said, through her use of imagery and story-telling, matched with her own use of expression and that of the musicians, Green is able to create a cohesive experience for the listener, one that is thought-provoking and makes you want to listen again to try better to understand what she means, anyway.
Green leaves the listener with many questions – about the past, about nature, about our ancestors, and about ourselves. She does not offer solutions, necessarily (though in "No Poetry," featuring CJ Suitt, it is said that "we need to start a revolution"), and she also acknowledges the difficulty of all of these questions (even the river, she says, "struggles to remember its own flow"). Nevertheless, the questions need to be posed. In short, everything – time, space, people, nature – is connected, and we can only acknowledge the real truths by taking into account the complexity of our lives. "We are all this flow," she says in the last track. "We are all this river."