the honeyed river of summer

the honeyed river of summer
flows through my open window
as I drive home through Nisqually
dust in my eyes
and shadows on my tongue

I’ve been watching all the omens:
a pregnant fish split open
a flock of gulls headed to the mountains
I hear that raven finally stole the sun
now that everything else has already been stolen

lives, and land, and time, and tongues
all thrifted goods, lined up and categorized
on the side of an imperial road
where fast cars, overcrowded
force themselves slow

if you want to live in stolen times like these
you’d better have poetry writhing under your skin
it gives the human heart some mettle
it gives the mortal coil some context

The context that poetry brings is life giving, revolution birthing, hope reviving. I don’t know how I would have handled this ugly 4th of July without Langston Hughes’ words echoing in my head:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

I’ve read that poem on every 4th of July for many years now. It’s the only answer I have to the saccharine propaganda of American history classes and the murderous, genocidal reality. Over and over, Hughes created a space to revel in that dream, refuse the attached lies, and demand a better world. Now, more than ever, we need that space.

Portrait for Lady Agnew of Lochnaw

Shape me.
Chisel me up some accomplishments.
Don’t erase this mind with those smooth Sargent strokes
trading a life for an eternal raised eyebrow
replacing a well-woven history
with a few lines about beauty. 

Don’t neglect the indents in my flesh —
the armchair grasped too tightly
reupholstered in silk and nervous twitches.
Carve my jaw hard like I grind it at night
but whittle whales into the bone

Remind me
what’s soft in a body
can also be strong
can also be buoyant

K. D. Hume

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, John Singer Sargent, 1892. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

I came upon this portrait during a birthday trip to San Francisco. It was part of a traveling exhibition that I entered on a whim, the weather outside leaving much to be desired. I’d seen the painting online before, might have even read a book or two that used it for cover art. But in that gallery, on that day? I fell in love. I’d never seen an aristocratic woman given this kind of agency in a formal portrait. This much personality.

What a force to be reckoned with, I thought. And I had to know more.

So, I researched her, and I researched Sargent, standing there in front of the painting in a crowded gallery. My respect for both the painter and the subject grew, and I wrote this poem. Years later, I’m still just as captivated as the day we met.