Luther Hughes’ You Smell Like Outside: A Home is a Home is a Home

“You Smell Like Outside” is Luther Hughes’ wonderful column for Frontier where he seeks to answer the question every month: can poetry help us with our real, day-to-day life? For August, he’s exploring how to be in his new city, his old city, Seattle.


A Home is a Home is a Home

I didn’t tell my folks I was in a car accident until I saw them. It happened in St. Louis. I just moved back to Seattle, my hometown. Something about “breaking the news” over the phone felt just distant enough to make me cry. I didn’t want to cry. I told them. I was home and I told my folks I was in a car accident. I told them I didn’t remember what happened. Nobody cried.

Seattle is its grey usual self the next morning. Crows drinking from a puddle. Cars on the road. Leaves and leaves. In a poem, I write: “There is nowhere to go / without the dead.” I walk by The Original Philly’s and wonder if the 17-year old shot at the park was hungry before he died. That’s silly thinking, I tell myself. Afterwards, I write: “The city is ruthlessly lovely, though / with its long-lupine sky….” It is. Mount Rainier, a pillar of beauty and blue.

I wrote this poem after “In Jerusalem” by Mahmoud Darwish and “The City’s Love” by Claude McKay.

Here’s McKay’s poem:

For one brief golden moment rare like wine,
The gracious city swept across the line;
Oblivious of the color of my skin,
Forgetting that I was an alien guest,
She bent to me, my hostile heart to win

“Alien.” To feel alien in a city isn’t new. But, why did I feel alien here? I knew enough of Seattle’s ins, outs. But, the city is much different now. New rises, new buses. Construction and gentrification. I don’t recognize most of the city anymore. When I asked my friend what happened to the Red Apple on Jackson, he said, “Oh yeah, you’ve been gone awhile, they tore it down.”



“She bent to me, my hostile heart to win, / Caught me in passion to her pillowy breast.”



My poem, “In Seattle,” much like McKay’s, is about loving a city despite its horrors. Dwone Anderson-Young and Ahmed Said, the two in which poem is dedicated, were killed in 2014 in Seattle because they were gay. Here I am marveling at the city’s “long-lupine sky” when there’s so much death rising from the pavement. I was caught up, like the speaker in McKay’s poem, in the “brief golden moment.”

Does it matter if I mention the two boys were black?



Here’s “In Jerusalem” by Mahmoud Darwish:

I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then become another. Transfigured.

What I love about Darwish’s poem is the physical wandering or restlessness of the speaker. When the speaker is at an intersection of thought, they’re walking— “I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How / do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?” When they “fly” they become someone else. It’s as if to move past what they once thought of the city they knew, they must become someone new, someone who hasn’t inhabited the city before. Thus, their identity crisis: “So who am I?”



I end my poem like this:

I drink a cup of coffee,
sitting on a bench overlooking
the Sound: there is so much blue.

I don’t mean the ocean, though beautiful. Not Mount Rainier. I am sad. All I see is death in smiling faces, in the new high rises of the city—the windows plastered with dead smiles.

Where is my joy? How do I re-enter my hometown when it looks nothing like what I knew?



I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter.



I don’t have answers to any of my questions. I’m not sure who I am in Seattle anymore. I walk. I co-organize a poet mixer at Open Books. I meet poets who I only knew online. We laugh and drink wine. Dead smiles.

The next day, I watch the trees do their tree thing. Listen to crows. Black people are smiling despite the overcast. Summer. I’m watching my little brother’s little league football practice at Judkins Park. Men are barbequing. One says, “Oh you know how we do it in the Six! Sun or not!” and daps another up. Is this my joy: the people who still celebrate despite of— “The great, proud city, seized with a strange love” …

It starts to rain.


Luther Hughes

Luther Hughes is a Seattle native and author of Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the Founding Editor in Chief of The Shade Journal and Executive Editor for The Offing. A Cave Canem fellow and a columnist for Frontier Poetry, his work has been published or is forthcoming in various journals including, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, TriQuartlery, Four Way Review, and others.  Luther received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @lutherxhughes. He thinks you are beautiful.

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