Even the hemlocks moan.
Black rind, black faces,
winter’s stern grip of their necks.
They say it’s the worst one yet,
but they’ve all been the same.
The dead die every year
From “The Dead Are Beautiful Tonight”
A Shiver in the Leaves, the long-awaited debut from reviewer and author Luther Hughes, is fraught and unflinching in its exploration of the human condition. Hughes, a perennial champion of poetry and curator of lists that highlight new collections from queer poets of color, establishes himself as a powerful writer with a keen understanding of the page. His use of structure, rhythm and extended metaphor are among the best, and his particular utilization of the crow throughout A Shiver in the Leaves sets this debut apart as one of the most layered, complex collections of the year.
Hughes opens the collection with “Tenor,” a sparse poem that utilizes white space expertly to create movement and introduces crows, a figurative tool that Hughes returns to often as the collection progresses. In this first entry, the speaker is overwhelmed with “Crows/and more crows.” With a sky proliferated with crows, the speaker laments, “I wanted/so much of today/to be peaceful,/but the empty crow/untethers/a feral yearning/for love…” The poem also introduces one of Hughes’ core themes as the speaker admits,
I was a boy
with a hole
stuffed themselves into.
I have wanted
to do with blackness
or my life.
Across the collection, speakers contend with their tendency to seek out sexual interactions, often problematic, as a salve for the anguish of living as a queer Black man in America. The speaker in “Tenor” acknowledges that they have finally reached a place where they can admit to and understand these habits. As the collection progresses, Hughes’ speakers show a deeper and more nuanced awareness of how, and why, we too often pursue physical connection in the wake of sadness and grief.
Hughes infuses A Shiver in the Leaves with allusions to Black children and adults murdered by a white supremacist system. More recognizable names include Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, but Hughes also highlights names that received far less attention. He also addresses some who have taken their own lives, implicating the white supremacist state and the challenge of enduring a lifetime of anguish. In “He Went Away Without Saying Goodbye,” for example, the speaker describes the aftermath a man’s suicide, one co-worker commenting simply, “Better here than Suicide Bridge over in Aurora.”
One of the most powerful indictments of anti-Blackness is “(Black) Boy, Revisited,” a sweeping poem that makes of three distinct structures to comment on the long history of police murdering Black boys and men. The poem opens by describing how a Google search for “Tamir Rice” pulls up a series of entries about other Black boys and men killed by police. The poem then offers a parallel in which the speaker considers the same entries but, instead of those already murdered, each name is replaced with the authors. On the second page of the poem, Hughes shifts from a largely prose poem to a series of lines which arrange and rearrange a series of lines aligning boys with heaven.
Ultimately, A Shiver in the Leaves resists a brief review. His use of the crow alone warrants deep, thorough exploration. Hughes thoughtfully explores his mental health, his complicated relationship with loved ones, and his evolving sense of companionship. He is equally adept at sharp, gut wrenching lines and subtle, quiet lines that linger in the mind for days. His poems are markedly philosophical without being preachy, deeply personal yet relatable and accessible. Fans of Hughes have long anticipated his debut, and he doesn’t disappoint. Instead, he has given us a collection that improves with each read, and that urges readers to return to it again and again.