Byrdie Lee Howell Langon self-published Utah and the Early Black Settlers, a short book about her life and the Black community in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was honored with these words by her Bethel AME pastor, Jerry Ford, in 1969:
We say we love you
not only for what you are
but for what you are
when we are with you
we love you
for putting your hand
into our heaped-up hearts
and passing over
all the frivolous and weak things
that you cannot help
but see there
and drawing out
all the beautiful things
have not looked far enough
Covered Wagon as Spaceship
Standing unseen in the little bluestem,
curious and not quite used to living,
I consider whether it's aliens
that brought Black folks to the canyons, valley.
Standing in the great evaporation
of a lake, holy dandelion for
eyes, full and white and searching the landscape
for understanding: how do you come
to be where there are no others, except
science fiction? I am a child feeling
extraterrestrial; whose history, untold,
is not enough. Anyway, it begins with abduction
UFO, for Instance
When the hole between blue spruce widens
and twists into a cosmos when the wild
lilac and campfire atomize and night hangs their smokes
across its belly when in the clearing you are certain
you are not lonelier but there is a lifting in you
where other knowing rises too and divides you from the bone
in your feet to the fat round your heart and leaves you
surrounded by your own breath you emerge from
and watch vanish and think the night ate it ate your knowing and how
could anyone know any more you might as well look out
into the clouds of long pine that hang brambled and
orange in branches you listen for howling but none comes
According to her, I appeared to my mother in an in utero vision and told her my name. Before I chose my mother, all day long I ran my fingertips along the slick backs of cutthroat trout and gathered water from Millcreek into a sapphire pail. I waited for her. In the distance, there was a blue bull surrounded by lilies.
She loves me, so she bore me underwater. IÕm here to learn a lesson. I spent my other lives in the Nevada desert, where I only did what felt good. What could that mean? I reconcile the pleasure in lying naked on the hot sand of the Mojave, watching the braided muscles in a horseÕs hind legs with the ocean nowhere, a frying chest on the hood of an idle car. So comes a lesson, IÕm here to cut the scorpion from my throat. Even though it has dragged me through sweet darkness and time. Even now, in the stillness of home, in love and full of wine, it wraps its eight legs around me. Even through the lilies, it sets its many eyes on me and, suddenly, longing
Like a Suggestion
The antelope start dying,
of all places, on Antelope
Island. Our two greyhounds
startle in their sleep and walk
together toward the window.
I've heard wolves are hunting
bison, even though it's spring
and there are easier things to kill.
Cowbirds abandon wooden
fences. They say Atlantic salmon
haven't returned to their cribs
of fresh water. The cat stands still
before an open door to the house.
I move to put my hand behind
her ear and she bolts.
I Have Learned to Define a Field as a Space between Mountains
If I remember a field where I stroked the velvety hound's-tongue and cracked its purple mouth from stem and it is not a memory, then what were the limits of the field?
Sometimes we are driving south toward Zion in a crowded truck with my mother and we pass the same red wildflowers until someone says, ÒIndian paintbrush, Rio, havenÕt you seen them before?Ó And, have I?
Other times I pose in front of giant flor de maga, its soft petal saucers larger than my head. My father fixes one behind my ear and says something in Eyeri but for what photograph? I am a conjoined hibiscus-headed twin, except IÕm local.
I braid the long hair of the willow and like a young warrior I swing across the canal bed by the braid. By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the willow trees, we hung our harps. How could we sing the LordÕs song in a foreign land? I read this once in Sunday school, tripping on it.
In any field I am certain I can be seen by someone. How couldnÕt I? When IÕm blood-divided one hundred ways, when I pray to the God called DO NOT BOARD THE SHIP, when IÕm protected by so many masters of the vine. They must be in here somewhere? They must see me this far into the desert, it canÕt be that I am alone here. I search behind the cattails, I scramble the wood. Has it gotten darker?
A child and all I can see are houses. Every house is a rambler with a plastic snake full of sand or a well that isnÕt really a well. Every house is on a street named after the Ute tribes. IÕm in Ute Country, in the field to fly a cheap kite, but it gets caught in pine sap. I walk home but not without pocketfuls.
The Idea of Ancestry
After Etheridge Knight
I am in a sweet place
standing in Millcreek
on a road
in its canyon
and this sweet place
has also been the sweet place
of my people
I am staring
into the water
my grandmother fished
with a rod and a line
I am standing
near the head
of a timber trail
felled by grandfather's
I am listening
to the aspen
its green coins
singing in the wind
and I know it sang
just like this
I am standing
right at the center
of its singing
the same sound
heard by black bears
or the calf of a moose
lying even sweeter
in the yarrow
showing we can be dark
and shining in wildflower
I know this timber
was once a house
my mother's grandmother's
mother's hammer in hand
a timber roof
that has kept the frost
from coming in
and stinging my babies
we made that
I consider choosing
there are times
when it is a joy
I like to think about my people
drinking fresh buttermilk
from the chosen farms
of their other people
all of us gazing
back at the house
framed by our future knowing
filling up on fresh tomatoes
maybe lying like the silk calf
in the deerwood and the aster
Driving at Night
For Laquan McDonald
I think it's quails lining the road, but it's fallen birchwood.
What look like white clouds in a grassy basin, sprinklers.
I mistake the woman walking her retriever for a pair of fawns.
Could-be animals. Unexplained weather. Maybe they see us
that way. Disappointed, the closer they get. Not quite ready to let it go.
I'm Forced to Imagine There Are Two of Me Here
To fit in we practice not dancing I pull her hair against our head and burn
the water out she sucks in the lip of our belly
I call her Rio say Rio remind them of our one white grandmother
do what it takes to make them think we are like them
Because it is a risk to want us we close the bedroom door she reaches under
the blanket It's just me Rio and The Dark
does she part my legs or The Dark's I spit into our hand and touch her
Sometimes she bites our lips to make them smaller we refuse
to dance we do what it takes
I let her drive Little Cottonwood Canyon It is night we hit a deer breath
from its nostrils clouds the windshield It feels like there could be more
of us somewhere she opens the car doors we show each other mercy
take the same bite of a cracked rib blood from her mouth I move to kiss the animal
I learn to shoot a bow
It is no River Jordan that flows here
between the railroad tracks and the back porch.
It's a canal. Not unlike my mother:
low as it want to be and fullest when
it rains. Existing for however long
without a name, and singing
under a timber bridge that we built. We built that.
Isn't that our story? To be denied
the beginning. I cross the bridge to shoot
a sapling bow my grandfather has carved.
He helps me aim into cardboard flats stacked
against the willow. I guess this is where
I am Orion. With two birth stories.
In one story I come from a sea god
with the forest as my mother, and in
the other, I have no mother at all
Just as close to living as you are to disappearing knowing
my limits you locate the tender spots without.
To be batter and rind
maybe I've hidden my feral self even though I was certain I was wild
I'm now certain it was vanity
here I pace cut open drinking thistle and yolk
expecting nothing determined to live
you Little God, Oldest Friend
who summons milk and hair from the follicle who moves my teeth and makes
me bleed it is not a joy but joyful to have been brought
to the earth
haven't we touched hands before? in the bright red towns of my youth
in Loa or Escalante where I thought we were only passing through
was it you at the counter serving me sarsaparilla in a cool brown bottle,
Marion's 1982 Chevrolet Citation
If I board her it means pulling open her heavy sails the steel
that gravity throws shut on my calves good thing
I am quick to leave
She must be virtuous because there is nothing hidden in her
going not the power in her closing doors nor the ignition
and its triumphant refrain
even idle, she disrupts she rests in the cool shade
of a basketball hoop I stare from my parents' living room window
how the mulberry tree wreaks its havoc on the driveway
all my friends call her The Killing Machine how else
could she have lived this long and look so good Marion says
it's like she's been asleep for me
I am six days from my sixteenth birthday I cover her
hatchback in cosmic fish and press
my foot down where do I go I wonder without them
the chrome of the dashboard mirrors the Millcreek sun
I see myself in fraction my wristwatch as I pull the radio knob
eyebrow cocked as I adjust her mirrors
A Class Distinction
I start to say
I left the mountains,
the Wasatch and Oquirrh
I question the spelling
in my head
I've never been sure
I wasn't born from mountains at all
but a valley.
What is lower
than a valley?
I left the strip malls,
I grew up in a long drive-thru line
sipping diet cola from a bent straw
when I talk about mountains
I am being romantic
about the valley
you'll unmask me
I've always been that way
just a little
on the Berber carpet
squashing summer ants
the TV telling me everything
This is the place! Space is the place.
-Brigham Young -Sun Ra
I slip the silksac of my body and walk out onto the flats
the air a machine sucking earth into fragments of white absorbing heat
I kneel at the shore I reach into the lake it is red as a halt
I reach into the wound of it I drag out its string of bones
and now I am two times the dark
I crush skeletons of artemia underfoot I eat eggs in stasis the dead lake idles
the city surrounds what weapons we are I fold the net of my shadow I hold it
"Emancipation Queen" was a historically Black beauty pageant in Utah.
can be a tool
who would know
come from a red-
named for what
the body made
but not the maker
or the blue
from which come
is that emancipation
to leave beauty behind
a Black girl
on a stage
inside the egg
of a robin
a Black girl who is
repeating the question
Until 1978, Mormons maintained that in a spiritual "preexistence," Blacks were neutral bystanders when other spirits chose sides during a fight between God and Lucifer. For that failure of courage, they were condemned to become the accursed descendants of Cain.
I think of the earth that drank Abel's blood
as I uproot foxtail from the garden.
Earth, not passive, but cursed by God, having
accepted death, and maybe, even, hoped
to grow from it. And Cain said to Abel,
"Let us go to the field." I cut my own
thumb on a weed. I carry out a strict
ritual of healing: cold hose water and then
most Holy: mouth. Tell me, what mark has God
given me? I am paraphrasing here
when I say God told Cain to rule over
his own longing or else restless wanderer
shall he be on earth. First curse, then blessing.
God's always changing his mind about us
To Salt Lake, Letter Regarding Genealogy
After Charles Olson
No shore no shore backed against a paradox of water where snow
halts in valleys and we drink
what melts, I, risen from one break in the endless
salt flat. I have had to build. O! how I have built for you!
See how I have come, Salt Lake, with my thousand faces of the void!
My face night with no stars, my face waves
in night sea. I was born to work.
My mother, crow-headed goddess, called me dust and trusted
I'd become. I changed for you! I became
a quarry in Big Cottonwood. Later, I was born
in uniform and carried a pickax in my throat.
I stole the mountain's sandstone and it wasn't good enough
so I took its quartz instead and told you "pray by it." I,
Guard-thing of the White city. How would you pray without me!
I was born with a sore head from a perm and swaddled in pages
from The Good Book. I was a decoy.
I pretended not to know my many names.
I did the work of believing with you.
I was born on swamp property the woman who bore me was an animal.
Copyright © 2022 by Rio Cortez. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.