An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Tuscaloosa: Riversong

By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

for Mister Weaver

1. Black Warrior speaks

The night before they came,
I walked on my river. I had strange
dreams: bloody shouts to the sun,
bodies in the trees, twirling legless.
I sang until morning. I sang, and the white
ones were here sniffing an empty breast.
They are here but I cannot die.
My tribe is strong behind our
drums and sliced trees.
We are strong against these whites
with sticks like dirty breath, these
silly children snatching toys.
They do not see me.
My tongue is strong and hides me.
I cannot die. They do not see me
walking on my river, my teeth biting
at early chains. They only
know they choke on my songs.

2. DeSoto speaks

I have seen him before all
over the world. This Indian,
this Tuscaloosa, this red man
with the black name dares
to think he will defeat me
and my tribe. Who is he to imagine
he will kill me with his songs,
sacred or commonplace?
Who is he to be sure that his spirits
will hear, float down this river,
sting the skin of slaves?
I am the one who cries the music
of God, and Tuscaloosa is mine.
He cannot live past my morning
into night. I want his seed to die
in this water. I want his mouth
wounded with slime.

Tuscaloosa.
I will push him into that river,
this warrior of a cracked womb.
His song will never be earth or flesh.

3.

Tuscaloosa sleeps in the water
stirs the silt of blues
makes music of ashes
feeds death clotted anger

Tuscaloosa sleeps in the water
sucks gore from his lungs
strips the green crucifix
roars the gumbo scream

Tuscaloosa
Tuscaloosa
Tuscaloosa

Trane's Alabama
a Creole agony
blood slung through air
a throat-filled epiphany
death licking madness
an elegy for mud

4.

This is the river of no longer.
Here by the side of the Black Warrior,
lights are woven through branches.
Water level signs hang from the trees:
1919 1857 1913 1989 and on.
A memory of what is no longer
painful. From year to year
the levels of the water climb
higher than before, and in the spring
the people of the town visit
mounds filled with bones.
They buy feathers and skin painted
bright colors, or whistles drilled
with holes that make sounds
of animals unnecessary and small.

No one talks of the year he died.
Tuscaloosa is a river, a place
where quiet blood is shed.
Tuscaloosa is a river, signs
nailed to trees. We do not speak
in old tongues. We blow pretty
noises through holes.

5.

Tuscaloosa.
This is not the river, so long,
so wide, Hayden's water, baptism
of survival. The river that Mama
and I crossed over one summer,
crossed over history's concrete
back, the river that made her ask,
Do you think we should pray I can't
See the shore this is the river the slaves
Had to cross oh God I can't see
The shore do you think we should pray?

This is not Jordan, only the river
DeSoto tossed three hundred souls into,
watched the water grow tall
as they squirmed like dancing
stones, watched the water dark
and struggling rise and rise,
bubbles blowing from the children's
mouths, mother's wet chants
swallowed by dirt.
This is not Jordan.
There is not milk and honey
waiting on the other side, only
dead stones flat and smooth.
This is not Jordan, only simple water
muddied from a season of rain.
This is not Jordan, but I have
prayed at this shore anyway.

6.

Tuscaloosa
feathered with spirit
red libation on the tongue
claws mystery into earth
scatters song on this river

Tuscaloosa
prayer of ancient thirst
wind through clench fist
claws mystery into earth
scatters song on this river

Tuscaloosa
holy man swept into light
gnarled root of God
claws mystery into earth
scatters song on this river

Tuscaloosa
Tuscaloosa
Tuscaloosa

dark arms cup the blade
blue spit in the scripture's eye
do not walk across my water
do this in remembrance of me

 

Published: 23 September 2005
© 2005 Honorée Fanonne Jeffers and Southern Spaces