In June of 1998, three white supremacists attacked 49-year-old James Byrd, Jr., chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck, and dragged him down a country road to his death. The men then abandoned the remains of Byrd’s body in front of an African-American church and went to a barbecue. This horrifying murder took place in the Big Thicket National Preserve, in a rural part of east Texas with a long history of Ku Klux Klan activity. Big Thicket is also the childhood home of poet Natalie Giarratano, the “landscape of my youth,” as she calls it, and it is the geographical heart of her powerful second collection of poetry, Big Thicket Blues (Sundress Publications, 2017).
Giarratano begins her new collection with an eight-part poem about Byrd’s murder that undertakes a brutal self-examination of racist violence in her hometown. While Giarratano mourns the death of Byrd, noting how “three cocksures chained you to the back / of their pickup as though you were some old / leather shoe,” she also implicates herself and her family and her own history as part of the evil that led to Byrd’s death.
Giarratano finds it impossible to escape the racism of her home, to “shake / thicket out of this sluggish / stumbling into myself,” even after she moves out of the south to attend college. She was a child at the time of Byrd’s murder, attending a segregated school whose yearbook pictures looked like the opening credits of the Brady Bunch, but the adult speaker feels cursed by the inherited wickedness of her home, and notes that the past repeatedly erupts “out of the muck like a snake we didn’t think / was there but is suddenly in our goddamned boat.” In 2008, in the supposed “post-racial” national consciousness that elected Barack Obama, another black man, Brandon McClelland, was killed in a similar way in the northeastern Texas town of Paris. The disconsolate speaker, no longer a child, concludes that it is easier for the people of Big Thicket, Texas to “rehearse our alibis, / get to the local carwash, / clean this busted pickup of proof.”
The poems in Big Thicket Blues repeatedly face down deeply-buried regrets, whether the national heritage of racism and murder or familial sins of abandonment. In “Poem for Crying Stranger in an Alley,” the speaker recognizes the intense anguish of a child suffering from familial neglect, yet seems helpless to prevent it. After witnessing a solitary girl crying “like you saw your / daddy’s throat slit,” she identifies the child’s suffering with her own anguished memories of domestic violence, her father “screaming the words / I was not allowed to say,” and “the murder / weapon he almost made from a pillow.” But instead of helping, the speaker leaves the child alone, “hoping somebody else might be safe with you.” The older woman and the child never connect emotionally because their sufferings are private and insist on solitude.
Giarratano’s strength is conveying memories of violence and unease with remarkable emotional clarity. This violence, often domestic, is frequently undefined, and it haunts the edges of her memories of family and growing up. There are neophilic coyotes haunting her Texas desert, and crows and bears just on the verge of attack. There’s also the sense of generational disappointment. In “Self-Portrait as My Estranged Father,” she faces the regrets caused by the lost father who will “always be at memory’s table.” In “Ninsun to the Deities after Her Son Gilgamesh’s Death,” Giarratano imagines the crushing sorrow of a mother mourning her son, wishing for revenge on the gods who “are always burying / something.” She says that daughters “pay the price for a father’s dream,” but does not elaborate on either the dream or the suffering. In these poems, younger people look toward the older generation to ease their pain, only to be disappointed. This recognition that there is evil and suffering in the world that goes by without the retribution of justice is the most painful part of these poems.
But to note only the evocative articulation of pain inflicted against the most vulnerable figures is to miss half of the power of this collection. Big Thicket Blues is also a glorious celebration of music and music’s power to heal. The title announces itself as a blues, after all, and like the blues this text expresses heartbreak and tragedy through beauty, humor, and wit. Giarratano intersperses bracketed vignettes between poems that draw from the lyrics of Lead Belly (Huddie William Ledbetter), the Louisiana blues singer who famously murdered one man and later made recordings while in prison for the attempted murder of another. His voice is an almost mythical connection to the violent and vibrant past of the Piney Woods of Texas and Louisiana.
The poems in Big Thicket Blues are sprinkled with lyrics, sounds, and snippets of music that bob up through her memory and alleviate her oppressive burden of grief. Here, there is a mandolin, there a saxophone; a hi-hat slips into a verse and then is silent. Though all daughters do have to pay for the dream of their fathers, sometimes too a woman can be “a walking jukebox / song swelling like magnolia in the skin.” Even as the young speaker of the title poem is coming of age in a Big Thicket befouled by racism and generational violence, she still sings along with the bullfrogs to “What a Feeling” from the Flashdance soundtrack, a memory that is a perfect evocation of a childish naivete as well as a sincere thanksgiving for the healing potential of song.
Two poems, “Thump (on Frenchmen Street),” and “The Translations” are straight-forward paeans to music’s transformative power. “Thump” is a buttoned-up but colorful prose piece in which a viewer observes a New Orleans jazz band settling into a groove powerful enough to convince us that music might still provide a sense of “hope in the ungodly things we do to each other.” The next poem, “The Translations,” unfurls into free verse, slinking down the page with a tingling bass line, shimmying hips, and sliding notes. “Don’t trust anyone who / doesn’t listen to music,” she warns us. For Giarratano, music sucks us deep and might be the only way we experience joy.
Giarratano’s themes coalesce in the final poem in the collection, “Songs from Terezín.” Terezín was a concentration camp near Prague that the Nazis reserved for Jewish musicians and composers, creators of what Adolf Hitler considered “degenerate music.” While imprisoned there, a Jewish Czech composer named Hans Krása composed an opera for children entitled “Bumblebee.” “Songs for Terezín” is arranged like a cycle of eight songs with a prelude and a coda added, and creates a perfect bookend to the eight-piece “Big Thicket Blues” that begins the collection.
Sing as though your belly
Doesn’t ache. Sing
until you become
“Songs for Terezín” is a final reminder that, while human suffering and violence are the patrimony of every human alive, there is always music to set us free.
Aaron Brame is the former senior poetry editor at The Pinch Journal. He is the winner of Synaesthesia Magazine’s 2015 poetry contest, and his work also appears in Lumina, Hartskill Review, Kindred, and Pembroke Magazine. He teaches eighth-grade English in Memphis, Tennessee.