This collection is truly “so sweet [it] must be sacred.” My copy is covered in sticky notes, and one reason it took me so long to write this article is I loaned it out twice to poet and reader friends. Set in a southern landscape, this collection delves into family, guilt, death, and tradition. Part eulogy, part praise, part meditation on place, these poems curl their knuckles around your heart, squeezing you in the feels while also inspiring, healing, mesmerizing, and offering sanctuary, a place where, should you also be grieving, you feel understood.
Many of these pieces feel applicable to many generations of Americans but are particularly hard-hitting in our current era of police brutality and gun violence. Take this line from “When My Mother Had the World on Her Mind, Crickets in Her Ear”, for example: “They’re shooting boys who look like you. You know my number, / use it, keep all your blood… Stay… alive.”
I was left gaping after reading “Rock-a-bye”, particularly the final lines: “how can I tell [my mother] I love you / in a way she hasn’t heard my father say before”, as well as one of the final poems, “What Is God but Rain Spilling Me Over?”, which is an homage to lost loved ones.
Another piece that has stuck with me is “Is it Love”, which is about a landlord and the power he has over his tenants; I carry so much resentment toward my own slumlord rental company and have never considered using poetry to ease my anger. It becomes deeply personal to remember that so many renters are being exploited and mistreated by those who should be caring for them, whose very job is to maintain healthy, livable housing.
Our landlord white and old
comes over smiling.
I wonder where he lives.
Why my mother cusses him…
I asked Tyree a couple questions after finishing River Hymns.
The details in your pieces bring each scene to life and center the reader squarely in the poem. What is the importance of place in your poetry?
Place is very important to the world of River Hymns. The people become the land and vise versa. Place also acts as a container for the magic in River Hymns. Rivers, tobacco, and birds are also spells.
What does “I hear mercy / in the leaves breaking under my feet.” mean? It strikes me as gorgeous and profound – I just can’t grasp the extent of its beauty.
The land also having duende responds to the negative and positive things it has seen. The land, just like the people, asks for mercy.
River Hymns, which won first place in the 2017 American Poetry Review / Honickman First Book Prize, is available on Amazon and at booksellers, including Barnes & Noble and I think even Target. I recommend this collection for those who love poems that burn long after the book is put down.