Take me to the water. Take me to the water. Take me to the water to be baptized.
i look for god among
the strung-stilled shore;
sliced into pieces,
taken beneath black hand.
across the bay
there is no bay.
the wind strips
the land into a vibrant
new orleans into butter.
i see a boy dipped
by katrina’s pastoral grip.
what a perfect time to be baptized—
she must be thinking—
for the blood of the lamb. i don’t know
what’s real and what’s a flush
of bodies. i don’t know where
the woman goes once all the boys breakdown
and the shuffle of dead things.
the naked house
to the left
of the boy, clothed in light,
is a church—full—of something other
than god’s grace.
when i was nine,
my mother dressed me in white
for my baptism.
her eyes watched me die,
like a wooden plank
inside the pastor’s palm. i saw the water
push itself around my new body.
but where is my shed
skin? where did the boy
trapped in the jowls of the disaster
flee? i still can’t find god. katrina,
still swings her hammer,
waiting until the unearthed
land unrolls its tongue
from the back of its dirtied throat.
as i leave the pool
of water, i’m still wet from god’s absence.
the white robes crying
out of happiness. my mother kisses
my salty forehead. but i can’t feel her.
i’m still being baptized.
i walk beside her
into the ripple of pews, the bobbing heads
singing about god—the purity of blood.
how it pearls inside me, now.
a beaded necklace.
i wait for my new body
to find me. i look back. there i am.
mouth to mouth
a white linen pulled over my head.
“Luther Hughes plays language like a wind instrument, seamlessly merging New Orlean’s memory of Katrina with the speaker's memory of his first baptism. The hymn that follows echoes a boy’s intimate search for god amidst the reality of flood water and destruction. Luther Hughes fearlessly stewards the transformative power of poetry, articulating a space where the dreams and traumas of the speakers’ body and the body of the land become one—and in the process, we are reincarnated with him.”
— Jess X Chen, poetry judge