A portrait of Luther Hughes looking seriously toward the camera, with foliage behind him

Luther Hughes’ ‘A Shiver in the Leaves’ Explores Black Embodiment and Queer Desire

by Amanda Ong

Luther Hughes, a born and raised South Seattle poet, released a collection of poetry, A Shiver in the Leaves, on Sept. 27. Set in South Seattle, where abundant green foliage is both a prevalent feature and a key element of Hughes’ experience, A Shiver in the Leaves is an exploration of queerness and Blackness in the midst of love and depression.

“My work has always been about kind of intimacy and desire and sex, and also just the Black body in relation to all those things,” Hughes said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “I’ve always been really concerned [with], and kind of riding towards, what the Black body is perceived as, and how the Black body functions in different areas and aspects of life.”

Prior to A Shiver in the Leaves, Hughes had been published in several poetry publications and also published a chapbook, Touched, in 2018 about his experiences surviving assault. A Shiver in the Leaves, however, is Hughes’ first full-length collection of poetry.

“It’s such a complex book that is hard to pin down, but I will say A Shiver in the Leaves is concerned solely or holistically with what it means to live as a queer Black person who was from Seattle and wrestling with suicide ideation,” Hughes said. “And wrestling with wanting to be loved and understanding what it means to be loved, both by the beloved, both by the self, and also by family members. And using Seattle’s cityscape and naturalness to offer those things.” 

The collection engages with motifs and themes like that of the American crow in Edgar Allan Poe’s works, which also appears in this collection as a figure in dealing with Blackness. Several poems in the book specifically name Black people who have died at the hands of violence. At the same time, the collection also works around love and beauty. Before A Shiver in the Leaves, Hughes rarely wrote about Blackness in the context of national violence, instead focusing on his family experiences. But after the murder of Trayvon Martin, Hughes felt pushed to write.

“I found myself doing more research on violence against the Black body and diving more into that in poetry,” Hughes said. “However, I’ll also say that in the book, I try not to rehash that same violence. The poems that are really about how myself, Luther Hughes, has really digested those things and moved through the world with those violences on my mind.”

Hughes was raised in Skyway, and the book reflects his South End upbringing. “This is a very Seattle book,” Hughes said, “and it’s a Seattle book in the way that I guess anybody who lives in Seattle can feel like it’s Seattle, but realistically because I’m from the South End, it’s a South End book. It is a big part of how I see Seattle. People always say Seattle is super white. And by population, it is, right, to be honest. But growing up there, I’d only really known Blackness. And so knowing that, and because the book wrestles with Black bodies and spaces, it’s letting my readers know [new environments are] shocking to me, because I’ve always been in Black spaces. I’ve never really not been around Black people; the South is primarily Black.”

The South End appears as a lens upon Luther’s upbringing as he wrestles with people’s perceptions of him in spaces outside the South End. It also plays with the beauty of the South End, the cityscape and its combination of urban trees and lushness, from the buildings, to the trees, to the cherry blossoms and views of Rainier unique to South Seattle. The environment accompanies Hughes as he journeys in his poetry through processing his experiences and lending them to readers to consider. 

“For me as a Black person, as a queer Black person, I’m not given a space really to process my trauma, because my trauma is on a national and [an] international scale,” Hughes said. “I have to rethink what it means to process. And for me, it goes back to understanding those moments, understanding circumstances, and how I can continue to live beyond that. … Allowing myself to process on the page, I’m hoping others can read the book and that they can be within their process themselves.”

A Shiver in the Leaves delves deeper into suicidal ideation and depressive moments, and wrestles with many a heavy subject. It asks its readers to process and digest these experiences with it, even as it avoids revisiting trauma upon the reader. As Hughes says, it is not a hopeful book. It is intense and dark and intimate, and yet hope shines through it in small ways. 

“I think hope just comes through living day to day,” Hughes said. “We don’t look for that hope, it just happens, right? So the book isn’t looking for hope, but it is looking to live. … Through all this depression and suicidal ideation, on the other side, there is love still in the book. There is, you know, wanting to be loved, there’s tenderness and intimacy.” 

As a remarkable tribute to the South End, to its community, and, more importantly, to himself and his struggles, Hughes has crafted A Shiver in the Leaves as a wondrous and complex first collection. Hughes brings to the South End a book of its own making, a remarkable accomplishment for a young author to give to his community. 

“I’m terrified and excited and anxious,” Hughes said. “The book for me means that I can reach people. … It means I’m able to reach somebody new, and hopefully encourage others to be as vulnerable as safety allows them to be.”

A Shiver in the Leaves is available for purchase through Hughes’ website and BOA Editions’ website.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Poet Luther Hughes was raised in Skyway, and the South End is a prominent part of his poetry. (Photo: Kenderick Richardson)

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