the ugly river
on the poem we needed
Yesterday I wrote a poem about a river.
It is also a poem about myself, reacting to the ugliness I saw in that river. I let myself get close to it, closer than I ever have on my walks near it so far. Its dark green, murky, and shallow waters met my eyes. Upon seeing it, I said, “ew.”
After laughter and a moment’s pause, I let curiosity lead me to some questions: Is it ugly because I don’t understand that this is how it ought to be? That question holds for me the truth that there is work in me to do to appreciate its beauty. I also asked: Is it ugly because it was made this way? Has its body known the violence of misuse?
I had been listening to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and walking alongside the river for about a week and changed. I considered the desperate request of a dark-skinned girl whose socially constructed “ugliness” informs the abuse, neglect, and lovelessness she encounters in life. With her deep desire for blue eyes on my mind, I wonder if I would love the river if I could see blue from where I stood.
So I wrote the poem we needed.
I’m sorry I walked up to you And spoke disgust as I Stared into your shallows After the laugh lines Died on my face The fatigue in me drew This thought from the place Where things are stored When they scare the world Too much to say But today I do not care What the world is afraid of I am only afraid of the tightness In my chest that has asked Kindly of me not to betray it So I say it: “I hope you have chosen to be this way” Because I know the pain of Of eyes looking away and What it feels like when you Finally believe a person who Calls you beautiful I don’t want to come near you I don’t want your waters to Ever touch my face But I want you to live as Lively as you May have lived before And I want to know your story Because something tells me My heart longs to know We are here for each other
I say that I wrote the poem we needed because I believe in the power of poetry to open portals. I have been living off the richness of “won’t you celebrate with me?,” and “night vision” by Lucille Clifton for a while. I’ve sat with Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival” all summer.
I say that I wrote the poem we needed because I know what it feels like to be socially ugly—it is, in fact, the only way “ugly” is true. I know it has taken an intentional reshaping of my life to be in the company of people, places, and ideas where my beauty is affirmed. It’s like living in a pocket dimension, in some ways…only those who have met the gaze of those who saw them as ugly consistently will know what I am talking about—and that is okay.
I say that I wrote the poem we needed because I feel like I have been invited to care about this river, alongside others who care and have cared for it too. I am thinking of living with members of a spiritual community who have named their community to emphasize their focus on watershed discipleship. I will write more on this later, but for now, I settle on the truths that have been accumulating since I first preached on “incarnational justice,” in 2018.
This is also true—it is the poem we need because it is not perfect. What my heart knows—the need for us to be here for each other—moves against the formation of my body to resist the things I have been formed to ignore or disavow. Within it is my repulsion…there is still a need for change and growth.
I say that I wrote the poem we needed because I think we could all take some time to sit with what has been storied into ugliness and decide to story into beauty what has been denied that gaze for a long time. Please take that with you and linger somewhere long enough to know its beauty in a way that draws up solidarity in you.