Abraham Lincoln Turns to Listen to the Lower Ninth

Unsteady aquanauts,
we leave behind the capsules of our mothers’ bodies.
This is who we are,
moving along the tributaries that take us away
and back home
to the delta and the sea.

Pushing along Okwata—wide wide water
we live
Bayougoula Mougoulacha
Chitmacha Oumas 
Tangipaho Colapissa,
Quinipissa Accapissa
among the pines and cypress,
before Pontchartrain 
manacles and the deep cuts
into what we know.

Pushing through the water
inside the body of Jesus
the Lord
the Wonderer,
we huddle indecently,
resisting the foul compression
that would shame us
into that which we are not
that would turn our salty blood

into molasses
rum
cooking oil,
that would turn our bodies
into leather goods
and amusement

that would make us forget
we are water
inevitably returning to the river and the sky
always returning
baked by the sun to rising,
and falling as rain.

Pushing along the Mississippi,
Abraham Lincoln turns to see
his life and ours revolving at slow speed
shuffling into in the grand St. Louis Hotel
anywhere everywhere in New Orleans.
He watches our picked, baled and branded lives.     
Hushed by the din of trading, he watches
our lips to see what we are saying.
“They were yelling, I thought I heard yelling,” he whispers
as he watches, then
“No. Of course, not.”

Pushing against the water
so many of us leave the capsules of our mothers’ bodies
parched bloated unburied.
Spinning synchronous with the circling helicopters
we turn to gain our bearings.
Our eyes fill with the funeral water 
that cannot be left behind.

It is in our blood
it is our blood
it is in our tears
it is our tears
it is who we are now and then,
stumbling and blinded from all we have seen,
straining along the roadways that lead away
from the shelter of the delta and the sea.

Falling
falling
falling,
rain
falling into his blinking eyes.

Related Poems

Blues: Odysseus

How many sat underwater,
entangled by myth’s past tense,
before Neptune first raised his
beard in the direction of Ethiopia,
and after, Odysseus—
always living—
was saved by Homer’s tablet?
Centuries after that story was written,
in the land of Not Make Believe,
a crew of slave-ship sailors
threw one hundred and thirty-two
Africans into the Atlantic Ocean.
Heave-ho to souls.
And people. And laws. And kin.
But Odysseus lives. He always will,
Our Great White Hope—
before whiteness was invented—
this hero who longs for the wood’s sway.
Despite his tendency to chase tail—
sirens and sundry other
poppycock-drinking girls—
I want to be happy that Homer imagined
a sea housing pretty, forgiving Nymphs—
while somewhere else, a wheel dances
and someone else drowns.
Sharks should pass Odysseus by,
never imagining his taste.
The gods shouldn’t pull at his fate—
now angry, now benevolent.
I try hard not to blame that man:
We all deserve our Maker’s love.

Middle Passage

I

Jesús, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy:

       Sails flashing to the wind like weapons, 
       sharks following the moans the fever and the dying;   
       horror the corposant and compass rose. 

Middle Passage: 
               voyage through death 
                               to life upon these shores. 

       “10 April 1800— 
       Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says   
       their moaning is a prayer for death, 
       ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves.   
       Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter   
       to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.” 

Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann:

       Standing to America, bringing home   
       black gold, black ivory, black seed. 

               Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,   
               of his bones New England pews are made,   
               those are altar lights that were his eyes.

Jesus    Saviour    Pilot    Me 
Over    Life’s    Tempestuous    Sea 

We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord,   
safe passage to our vessels bringing   
heathen souls unto Thy chastening. 

Jesus    Saviour 

       “8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick 
       with fear, but writing eases fear a little 
       since still my eyes can see these words take shape   
       upon the page & so I write, as one 
       would turn to exorcism. 4 days scudding, 
       but now the sea is calm again. Misfortune 
       follows in our wake like sharks (our grinning   
       tutelary gods). Which one of us 
       has killed an albatross? A plague among 
       our blacks—Ophthalmia: blindness—& we   
       have jettisoned the blind to no avail. 
       It spreads, the terrifying sickness spreads. 
       Its claws have scratched sight from the Capt.'s eyes   
       & there is blindness in the fo’c’sle 
       & we must sail 3 weeks before we come 
       to port.” 

               What port awaits us, Davy Jones’ 
               or home? I’ve heard of slavers drifting, drifting,   
               playthings of wind and storm and chance, their crews   
               gone blind, the jungle hatred 
               crawling up on deck.

Thou    Who    Walked    On    Galilee 

       “Deponent further sayeth The Bella J 
       left the Guinea Coast 
       with cargo of five hundred blacks and odd   
       for the barracoons of Florida: 

       “That there was hardly room ’tween-decks for half   
       the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;   
       that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh   
       and sucked the blood: 

       “That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest   
       of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins;   
       that there was one they called The Guinea Rose   
       and they cast lots and fought to lie with her: 

       “That when the Bo’s’n piped all hands, the flames   
       spreading from starboard already were beyond   
       control, the negroes howling and their chains   
       entangled with the flames: 

       “That the burning blacks could not be reached,   
       that the Crew abandoned ship, 
       leaving their shrieking negresses behind, 
       that the Captain perished drunken with the wenches: 

       “Further Deponent sayeth not.” 

Pilot    Oh    Pilot    Me 

 

       II

Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories,   
Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar; 
have watched the artful mongos baiting traps   
of war wherein the victor and the vanquished 

Were caught as prizes for our barracoons.   
Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity 
and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah,   
Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us. 

And there was one—King Anthracite we named him— 
fetish face beneath French parasols 
of brass and orange velvet, impudent mouth 
whose cups were carven skulls of enemies: 

He’d honor us with drum and feast and conjo   
and palm-oil-glistening wenches deft in love,   
and for tin crowns that shone with paste,   
red calico and German-silver trinkets 

Would have the drums talk war and send   
his warriors to burn the sleeping villages   
and kill the sick and old and lead the young   
in coffles to our factories. 

Twenty years a trader, twenty years, 
for there was wealth aplenty to be harvested   
from those black fields, and I’d be trading still   
but for the fevers melting down my bones. 

 

       III

Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,   
the dark ships move, the dark ships move,   
their bright ironical names 
like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth;   
plough through thrashing glister toward   
fata morgana’s lucent melting shore,   
weave toward New World littorals that are   
mirage and myth and actual shore. 

Voyage through death, 
                               voyage whose chartings are unlove. 

A charnel stench, effluvium of living death   
spreads outward from the hold, 
where the living and the dead, the horribly dying,   
lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement. 

       Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,   
       the corpse of mercy rots with him,   
       rats eat love’s rotten gelid eyes. 

       But, oh, the living look at you 
       with human eyes whose suffering accuses you,   
       whose hatred reaches through the swill of dark   
       to strike you like a leper’s claw. 

       You cannot stare that hatred down 
       or chain the fear that stalks the watches 
       and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;   
       cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,   
       the timeless will.

               “But for the storm that flung up barriers   
               of wind and wave, The Amistad, señores, 
               would have reached the port of Príncipe in two,   
               three days at most; but for the storm we should   
               have been prepared for what befell.   
               Swift as the puma’s leap it came. There was   
               that interval of moonless calm filled only   
               with the water’s and the rigging’s usual sounds,   
               then sudden movement, blows and snarling cries   
               and they had fallen on us with machete   
               and marlinspike. It was as though the very   
               air, the night itself were striking us.   
               Exhausted by the rigors of the storm, 
               we were no match for them. Our men went down   
               before the murderous Africans. Our loyal   
               Celestino ran from below with gun   
               and lantern and I saw, before the cane- 
               knife’s wounding flash, Cinquez, 
               that surly brute who calls himself a prince,   
               directing, urging on the ghastly work. 
               He hacked the poor mulatto down, and then   
               he turned on me. The decks were slippery 
               when daylight finally came. It sickens me   
               to think of what I saw, of how these apes   
               threw overboard the butchered bodies of 
               our men, true Christians all, like so much jetsam.   
               Enough, enough. The rest is quickly told:   
               Cinquez was forced to spare the two of us   
               you see to steer the ship to Africa,   
               and we like phantoms doomed to rove the sea   
               voyaged east by day and west by night,   
               deceiving them, hoping for rescue,   
               prisoners on our own vessel, till   
               at length we drifted to the shores of this   
               your land, America, where we were freed   
               from our unspeakable misery. Now we   
               demand, good sirs, the extradition of   
               Cinquez and his accomplices to La   
               Havana. And it distresses us to know   
               there are so many here who seem inclined   
               to justify the mutiny of these blacks.   
               We find it paradoxical indeed 
               that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty   
               are rooted in the labor of your slaves 
               should suffer the august John Quincy Adams   
               to speak with so much passion of the right   
               of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters   
               and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero’s   
               garland for Cinquez. I tell you that   
               we are determined to return to Cuba 
               with our slaves and there see justice done. Cinquez— 
               or let us say ‘the Prince’—Cinquez shall die.” 

       The deep immortal human wish,   
       the timeless will: 

               Cinquez its deathless primaveral image,   
               life that transfigures many lives. 

       Voyage through death 
                                     to life upon these shores.

Plantation

When he finally brought the hammer down
One half-inch from my mother’s face

The hole in the wall
Wide as a silver dollar

I was close enough
Huddled there

In the folds of her lap
Her arms wet with sweat and crossed

Against my back
And since from the room

All sound had gone
I was clear enough to see

Inside the cracked plaster:
A river delta, fractured,

Branching off and becoming
The sea. . . Or, a tiny moon

On a shore of white sand,
The tide lapping it in foam and tugging—No,

Twelve dead presidents perched there
Each with the face of my father—

Tight-lipped, vacant-eyed—
Scanning the field for a body to mark

Then locking in on her knee-bent dread—
Ordinary, mammary—

A yellow suckling heavy on her tit. . . No,
I think it was her one good eye

Refusing to blink,
Scaling the bare-white wall

At the core of the mind
(not measuring its height)

Then circling a waterless well
In a desert without sand,

Unnumbered sisters before her
Caught in the belly of the boats—

Where there was too much sound to hear,
Though only one voice, one cry—

Their dark arms like trellised vines
Crossed and reaching.