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  • Aarik Danielsen

Langston Hughes Forever

Heaven and earth sometimes trade places.

This lane of Missouri highway stretches before me like November sky: gray, easy, endless. White dashes streak the expanse, and I make out shapes in these regular irregular clouds: a postcard, an envelope, a single sheet of unspoiled paper.

What’s overcast overhead more closely resembles a field, plowed till the tender rows strain and billow.

Traveling interval spaces leaves plenty of time to sit inside a day’s poetry. Given enough time, the first poet you loved appears, riding shotgun with you through the in-between.

With apologies to Lennon and McCartney, when I find myself in times of trouble—or just a long weekend’s existential crisis—Langston Hughes comes to me wisely whispering.

But something about how and why we awaken to poetry attaches to the who, begetting a lifelong relationship.

Let me work out a theory: you never lose hold of your first poet.

Maybe an early favorite song holds across the years; more often, time’s own Doppler effect changes what you hear. Stubborn, haloed frames of a nostalgic film eventually fade, giving way to honest—and more satisfying—indulgence.

But something about how and why we awaken to poetry attaches to the who, begetting a lifelong relationship.

Hughes’ benevolent presence first hovered over me at 6, before I understood poetry as shape and sound and volume. Arriving, he fulfilled a gospel truth I failed to realize until this keystroke: Any poet worth their salt rightly handles death.

Between perfect Southern California days, loss gashed my first-grade class. Our schoolmate Sam left with his chronic illness, and children who barely knew how to spell discerned the language of absence.

Today I remember almost nothing about Sam, what he wore or liked to play. But I still hear his small, exhausted voice forming pearls; invoking his Jewish mother and Catholic father, Sam said he knew “the best of both worlds.” What 6-year-old takes such an accurate measure of the height, depth and width of the between places?

Wide-eyed, our class planned a sort of memorial service, a few moments to remember Sam and plant a tree where he should have grown. Our teacher guided us through a single stanza—exactly six lines, can you believe it?—of a poem called “Poem.”

Dedicating his dirge “To F.S.,” a faceless name penned words we didn’t know we already knew. Words for Sam, words to seal small hearts.

I loved my friend.

He went away from me.

There’s nothing more to say.

The poem ends,

Soft as it began—

I loved my friend.

Hughes’ poem, read first by a first-grade teacher and then her class, delivered something most adults couldn’t touch; meaning well, wanting to medicate and move on, they offer children a second-rate magical realism. Church people fare little better, grieving in proverbs that prop up their own understanding of God.

Hughes poured kintsugi gold in first soul fractures, leaving us the dignity of the cracks. He gazed at loss, pronouncing its name with no woeful pretense or wild invention.

Running his fingers across emptiness, the poet taught us to do likewise. Each stroke, a slow-moving oath—to leave the shape of the void, not fill it with balled-up newspapers, and so honor the beloved memory.

Then I knew nothing of the Harlem Renaissance, of the jazz and jump blues jangling the bones inside Hughes’s poems, of the America he loved and mourned in the manner of King, in the manner of Baldwin, but with a 20-year head start.

Still today, Hughes hands me the one true compass I have in the valley of the shadow of death.

Now I hear Hughes out on any and all matters. Around midnight, he tells me, the benevolent divine hum vibrating this world like a string becomes something altogether different: staccato notes of the gods’ laughter. He sifts with me the elements of stars and Earth, of clouds and hail, together discovering the stuff of our dreams.

And he drops the stereo needle on some strange, sad music, ancient and destined to forever sound new; melodies of dreams deferred in high strings and brass, love’s screwed-up resilience swinging the rhythm section.

All this abundance because once, in my first hour of inexpressible need, Hughes kept me company, whispering words my mouth would form. Still today, he hands me the one true compass I have in the valley of the shadow of death.

Where Hughes once sat preeminent, I welcome other poets. Curiosity is fulfilled across the pages of Mary Oliver and Franz Wright, patron saints of wonderstruck beings and souls slouching toward Bethlehem, respectively. An index finger to his lips, Rilke uses his free hand to wave me on, past the curtains of everyday temples and into the holiest rooms.

Among the living, I lean close whenever Scott Cairns whispers the secret names of God; play air guitar as Hanif Abdurraqib takes me to basement shows where each moment expands, then explodes; breathe long in the short silences between Joy Harjo syllables that line the shapes of mesalands beneath New Mexico’s setting sun.

But roads keep jutting from “Poem,” roads to Langston Hughes first and Langston Hughes forever. Flipped horizon lines and highways extend from Joplin, Missouri, the poet’s birthplace, a city whose murals bind his words to its past, present and future tenses.

Along one building wall, his butterflies take flight; their wings stretch to shelter a community beset by a tragic tornado, then show how to keep moving. Hughes’ kind face graces another mural, his eyes writing daily poems of beauty in Blackness. At yet one more site, the poet’s words testify to a common inheritance: bricks and bold colors and every elemental reality a historic Black neighborhood passes between its generations.

Whether in southwest Missouri or Southern California, in 66 years of living or the 56 years and counting since his death, Hughes’ remarkable project remains unchanged. Surround the body with poetry and the soul will have what it needs in time. Whether or not he wrote with us in mind, Hughes’ poems know you, know me.

And somehow, some miraculous way, they know the dimensions of every in-between space, coaxing the best from both worlds.


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