Waking Up at the Wake: Desire, Death, and Disruption in A Shiver in the Leaves
The phrase “a shiver in the leaves”’ is curious for the wide range of its associations. When I consider a shiver in the leaves, my mind fares in two directions: One is back to my first-time experience with psilocybin, shocked at how the fig leaves hung as if shivering, and how portentous such a vision was in deciding the direction of mine and my partner’s walk that night in North Long Beach, and the other is back through American history, to the strange fruit of Southern trees i.e., the lynching of Black Americans by white mobs. What do you do when your racial and queer identities are erroneously linked to death, violence, evil? When you are hunted? How do you live when who you are is constantly obscured by the projection of others? A Shiver in the Leaves suggests a willful going through, so to speak.
“Tenor,” the collection’s inaugural poem, sets the scene. The poem contains an epigraph to legendary Black neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, aligning the poem within the Black artistic tradition while introducing the dynamics of conflict and creation in the hands of a Black queer creative. Indeed, several of the book’s primary concerns surface here, chiefly, desire. But that desire is tension-riddled. We see this presented through the poem’s jagged lineation:
so much of today
to be peaceful,
but the empty crow
a feral yearning
that is so full
the words fall
to their knees
begging for mercy
like tulips in wind
A desire for peace is disrupted by the crow’s lack (“wings plucked empty”), which mirrors the speaker’s own personal inability to find peace. We follow as “the words fall” into a perpetual state of unsettlement down the page, “begging for mercy / like tulips in wind,” or two lips in wind, enacting prayer. From here, we move into the confessional with the speaker’s declaration:
After years of repression,
I can come clean.
I was a boy
with a hole
other boys stuffed themselves into.
I have wanted
to do with blackness
or my life.
Employing the language of substance recovery and religious atonement in the phrase “I can come clean,” the speaker admits to transgressing the body, and the self, with an honesty that’s both radical and disarming. Hughes then proceeds further into the existential, asking, “But, about love, / who owns the right, / really?”, and later still, “Who owns this body, really?” These two questions are central to A Shiver in the Leaves—they help link the collection’s thematic constellations (self-conception and worth, queer desire, ownership, the polysemy of the word black) together so that everything (leaf, dog, crow, 9/11, Seattle, Trayvon Martin, suicide ideation, police stop, love-in) exists as more than coincidences, but connected. The fact that it all holds together attests to the brilliance of the wordsmith. We surrender ourselves to Hughes’ insight and poetics, mirroring how these poems often surrender themselves to the awful power of finality.
Death shines brightly throughout A Shiver in the Leaves, and the speaker can’t seem to shake it or its instigator, violence; they permeate the (non)living of his living. Relational parameters between death and desire, at points, blur to the point of inscrutability. In “Culture,” for instance, the speaker and his friends (also Black) are stopped by police on the suspicion of burglary, who “man / [them] to the curb … flashlights searching our / faces, our chests, our legs.” Hughes shares that “one friend says he’s been broken before,” a confession that communicates the stakes of this random interrogation. Black boys caught in another “recycled story,” one in which their lives are placed in danger because the white power structure assumes their criminality before their innocence.
However, the speaker manages to find pleasure in this spectacle of institutional power within his own ability to imagine a way out of the reality of surveillance. When an officer asks, “You boys up to trouble?”, the speaker “[wants] to kiss the question, make love the word ‘boys’ as I have seen in porn.” Indeed, he is surveilling them in turn, “So busy studying the officers’ pelvises, [he] doesn’t notice” their doubting, pointed lights. He confides in us, “They / don’t know how after the frisk the black boy in the porn is scripted to blow the / officers.” This does not happen of course (“the production crew never arrives” we are told, and it is darkly funny) but there’s a curious shifting of perception and power enacted here. Hughes acknowledges the potential trauma inherent to the situation, but he and his friends find a way out of despair, through desire:
“I’m sitting on the bed talking about the rest of the night. One friend says he has an idea and the other looks at / me. We know what we came here to do. Let’s stop bullshitting. Take off your clothes.” In this way, the “recycled story” assumes another layer of meaning: not only are their bodies in the line of danger, but their shared eroticism is also threatened by the state’s own homoerotic underpinnings.
Desire, death, and blackness manifest again in “Inside the River, I Covet” when the speaker’s white lover admits to him: “Black, I only date Black men.” This upsets the speaker, due to the possibility of being nothing more than a type rather than a person in such an intimate space: “I wanted to spoil beneath / that splinter, that long-tongued thorn.” But prior to this admittance, the speaker’s self-awareness, and Hughes’ dazzling syntax, sheds some light on the proceedings:
The bluebird in his eyes screams, sweetens the nicotine
pirouetting in my lungs as, from outside—Your neighbor, I ask—
he nods—a man yells, Why am I always the last one on your list?
Whatever is in the air settles. How will I tell him I came
to receive his cruelty?
Beauty blends with aggression across the senses (a bluebird screams; the speaker’s nicotine is sweetened by the act of gazing into his lover’s eyes). The sentiments of strangers echo the subconscious (“Why am I always the last one on your list? … to receive his cruelty?”). There’s preservation in self-awareness. Hughes’ choice of “whittle” in the line “I will, trust, be clean enough for him to whittle inside me—” communicates the speaker’s understanding of the encounter, diminishing the power of its impersonality. Still, it’s a testament of the speaker’s strength that they can endure such vivid fusions of violence and pleasure:
I become his honeyed hanker, his in-too-deep voice,
You like daddy inside you, his spit and purr and butter,
his snake at the neck of my blackness. My blackness—
Blackness assumes many forms, mutable and vulnerable to its polysemy. Crows get mistaken for ravens (“It Is February”). Blackness is a double bind (“Can you imagine / being so tied to blackness / even your wings / cannot help you escape?” – “Tenor”). It is a long line of doors opening and closing that the speaker (at the start of this collection’s arc) declares a desire to escape. It tells the story before you get there (“You know the story before I tell it, / Black and already a hollowed pocket watch, / already thug-boned, nuisance-lipped, white-woman-smiled” – “The Death of a Moth”). However, as we travel the length of Hughes’ collection, the speaker comes to realize the aftermath of a permanent escape. So, reality is faced, with life leading them to a spate of hard truths and belief (“I know he is dead, nothing will change / but still I whisper in his ear, / Breathe. I want you to breathe.” from the titular poem “A Shiver in the Leaves”) to the warmth of a love that survives the threat of antiblackness (“Mercy”).
This discovery of a healthy, sustaining love contributes to a change in the speaker. In “Into the City, I Become Become,” he admits:
It’s childish of me, but I believe
in true love, in the way it can lumber
the lumbar. How it twangs
the tongue into twinflower.
Too, the yowl of hate.
Look at me. I’ve fallen to haze
as the train jilts into the tunnel.
There’s an almost dispossession of love here by fact of diminishment (“childish”) still an honest bearing of the heart, as well as a show of maturity in recognizing love’s tempestuous flip side. A reconciliation with his mother over a holiday impasse has appeared to help open the speaker’s ability to be, more than a plaything or distorted image (“In the mirror, my mouth lurks / behind the dead mouth” from “Obsession Gets on One Knee”). It allows him to be:
… finally what I desired. I take the sun
Between breaths, the train’s furrow,
the man that loves God with feather and nail, […] My life has been changed.
We see this change most affirmingly in the book’s final poem, “Such Things Require Tenderness” in which the speaker admits he “must tackle … turmoil/ if, by laws of nature, / I want to grow.” Change is enacted throughout A Shiver in the Leaves in a manner that feels fresh for its unsparing gaze, its acknowledgment of death and beauty. Hughes’ debut is a beautiful collection remarkable for its style and honesty.