“Touched”: a graceful, vulnerable chapbook

Luther Hughes was my mentor in a summer workshop with The Speakeasy Project, and upon becoming familiar with his work, I was drawn to the preciseness of his language and his attention to detail and emotion, and how place occupies both an imaginary and a physical realm. All these elements of Luther’s which I admire are present in Touched, his first chapbook, released this year by Sibling Rivalry Press. ❤

Probably the highest praise I can offer of Touched is that, in its intimate, painful dwelling on violence and sex, it enabled me to write about my own assaults for the first time. What power and what grace Luther writes with. What vulnerability. These poems connected with something in me that I had intentionally distanced myself from for months. For that, I am so, so grateful. And for that, I wholeheartedly recommend reading this collection, even if you don’t think you have any traumas to work through; Luther’s writing will move you, and, after all, isn’t that why we read?

Into poems of relationship, loss, and healing, he weaves Biblical language, stark landscapes, and bedrooms that seem familiar even if the details are different. Perhaps one of the most meaningful lines to me is this: “if only he’d stop / resisting, the poor bird would still be alive.” In what ways does abuse kill us? Cage parts of us? In what ways does physical death, particularly the deaths of unarmed, nonviolent black boys, cut into us? How does loving your abuser complicate the abuse? The recovery? Luther explores these and simliar themes in his 13 poems, explaining how violence and assault open us “like a zipper / stuck / on its threads…”

I interviewed Luther about this collection a few weeks ago.

Could you talk about grief? What does your grieving process look like? How does poetry – including poems such as “Trayvon” and “Alternate Ending with Weeping” – fit in?

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It’s funny. I’ve been thinking about grief a lot lately in the past few days because I’ve been trying to (re)write this poem about my dog’s death that happened about 13 years ago. I’ve been trying to write this poem for maybe five years now. And it’s weird because this is the only poem that I haven’t been able to write. Eventually, poems give themselves up to me, or, as someone once said, I’ve found my way in. But, this poem about my dog’s death evades me to the point of self-doubt. And this is what happens every time I try to write this poem.

This time around, I was tempted when I was walking to work, and I read a sign that said, “This house harvests rainwater.” And suddenly, I was grieving my dog, Beethoven. This is how I think of grief. I don’t believe anyone is ever done grieving. I think grief comes when you least expect it.

And for that matter, I don’t have a process. When I am impacted by death, like I was by Travyon Martin’s death, it’s overwhelming. It’s all I can think about. When Trayvon died and the audio from that night was released, I was obsessed. I wanted to know what happened and how. I listened to the clips over and over and over. People were confused about who was screaming and I wanted to be sure their confusion was justified. I just had to know. Although, I’ve written poems about death, those poems were about discovery and lineage. This was the start of my obsession with death and how I encounter it.

The poem, “Alternate Ending with Weeping,” isn’t about grief but about memory and how, like grief, it comes at the most random moment. More so, I think, this poem addresses recovery and acceptance than grief.

How does surviving abuse change us? Is “surviving” even the right word? Is there a way for the violence to be a catalyst for growth? Or is the “after” always shadowed by the abuse?

To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer this question. And I’m not sure how to answer it because I’m not sure what “surviving abuse” actually means. Is it a question of physicality, mental state, or spiritual rendering? I don’t know.

Me neither. I’m still uncomfortable calling myself a survivor because the truth is, I don’t feel like I survived anything. I feel like I endured it or lived through it, but it affected me deeply, and I think “survive” is too strong a word for the me that was left after I encountered my abuse. 

The best way for me to consider this question is to think about Lucille Clifton’s poem, “mercy.” And this poem has been haunting for several months now. But in this poem, the speaker announces her gratitude for the level abuse that happens and then ends with saying how mad they are about what happened. For all purposes, it’s a pretty straightforward poem. But I bring this poem up because, yes, the speaker survived the abuse because they are recalling what happened. But they obviously didn’t “survive” mentally because they are still affected by it as they’re reflecting.

Exactly.

Okay, so how does surviving abuse change us? I’m not sure. And, yes, the question is: “is surviving the right word?”

I don’t see, at least I don’t think, violence as a catalyst for growth. That’s almost like saying we only grow when harmed. That’s not true. I know there’s that saying from Mulan: “the flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of them all.” Okay, sure. Yes. But, am I only beautiful because I was abused? No, right? If I wasn’t abused would I be less beautiful than I am now? No. But, what I think this quote is saying, in so many words, is that everyone goes through something or has been harmed in some way, and this, our experiences, is what makes us rare, special.

To answer the last part of your question: I don’t pin the “after” against the “abuse.” To me, that’s weird. I was abused. I am still alive. Both are always present.

What’s next for you? What other projects are blooming?

Phew. What is next for me? I’m writing my ass off. I’m exhaustively working on my first full-length. I’m currently a columnist for Frontier Poetry, where I’m addressing different topics and questions using poetry. And I’m writing fiction. Not a lot of it, but characters have been coming to me in my dreams, so I’m jotting down and letting them ferment until I can get them to the page.

How exciting! I can’t wait to read more of your work, particularly that full-length collection. Hopefully I’m not speaking just for myself when I say that after Touched, it will be highly anticipated.


If you would like to purchase Touched (or put in a request for your library to snag it!), it’s available for $12 from Sibling Rivalry Press.


Feature image credit: Nicholas Nichols

 

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