To know Jaki Shelton Green is to love her, because one knows how deeply she loves and feels.

Long before Gov. Roy Cooper in 2018 appointed Green as the first Black American and third woman to serve as North Carolina’s Poet Laureate, her gifts as a masterful wordsmith were readily obvious to those who know her.

Much of Green’s work is informed by a pragmatic mysticism immediately recognized by Black women raised in the down-home folkways of Southern traditions.

In the decades that I have known Green, she has encouraged my work as a writer.

One night while I was visiting her home in Mebane that she shares with her gracious husband, Abdullateef, she gifted me a wonderful black and burgundy-striped hat knitted by her mother. During the 1990s, she was a frequent visitor at the home I shared with a woman who would braid Green’s hair while they sat at the kitchen table on Saturday mornings that stretched into afternoons.

Green’s latest volume of poetry, I Want To Undie You, was first published in 2017 by Jacar Press here in Durham. A second, pocket-sized edition was released this year as Voglio Strapparti Alla Morte, by the Italian publisher, Lebeg Edizioni, in Rome. Written in English and Italian, the volume is a powerful and poignant meditation—a long-play prayer, no less—that chronicles the death of Green’s daughter, Imani, who died in 2009 at the age of 38.

Green describes the work as “a love letter to Imani,” and “a universal statement about loss, and the “healing spirit as an artist.” “I turn to language to be the canvas,” she told the INDY, adding that in writing, she wanted to “un-die” her child. She was unable, she says, to write about Imani’s death until 2017, nearly a decade after it occurred.

“It would come to me in bits and pieces, in paragraphs,” she said. “At four o’clock in the morning, the poem would wake me up.”

I Want To Undie You pays homage to the ancient tradition of art as a catharsis that cleanses both the artist and observer, as Green struggles to come to terms with the death of her daughter, in this slim, emotionally fraught, 67-page work.

Along the journey, Green acknowledges the West African proverb “it takes a village” when she chronicles the communities that shared in her grief, gathering “to hold me / they came with food flowers holy water words open” as they “gently unraveled the [strings of our hearts releasing you and your new wings into a new sky].”

One-third of the way into Green’s journey, she offers the volume’s tour de force, “I Want You To Un-Die. Come Back Said The Mother.” Here, while resorting to a grammatical style employed by e.e. cummings and Ntozake Shange, Green deploys words with the power of a Conjure Woman in the act of spiritual resurrection. She speaks with painful authority to the universal grief of a parent losing a beloved child.

It reminded me of how my own mother simultaneously shook and trembled with unfathomable grief when my kid brother was murdered in 1993. “I Want You To Un-Die. Come Back Said The Mother” is akin to a sermon by a Black Southern preacher who calmly announces a Sunday morning text that builds into a song.

Green does not sing with the cool elegance of a Dinah Washington. There’s a rawness that recalls the anguish of an Etta James song if the source of heartbreak and loneliness were the death of her baby instead of romantic love. “i want you to un-die. i want the dust of you unscattered./ i want the hush of you un-hushed./i want the cries for you un-cried./i want you to un-die./i want the tomb of you un-tombed./i want the dirge of you un-sung./i want the grief of you un-grieved.”

Prepare to be moved by Jaki Shelton Green’s song.

Comment on this story at

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.