[American Journal]

- 1913-1980

here among them        the americans        this baffling
multi people        extremes and variegations        their
noise        restlessness        their almost frightening
energy        how best describe these aliens in my
reports to The Counselors

disguise myself in order to study them unobserved
adapting their varied pigmentations        white black
red brown yellow        the imprecise and strangering
distinctions by which they live        by which they
justify their cruelties to one another

charming savages        enlightened primitives        brash
new comers lately sprung up in our galaxy        how
describe them        do they indeed know what or who
they are        do not seem to        yet no other beings
in the universe make more extravagant claims
for their importance and identity

like us they have created a veritable populace
of machines that serve and soothe and pamper
and entertain        we have seen their flags and
foot prints on the moon        also the intricate
rubbish left behind        a wastefully ingenious
people        many it appears worship the Unknowable
Essence        the same for them as for us        but are
more faithful to their machine made gods
technologists their shamans

oceans deserts mountains grain fields canyons
forests        variousness of landscapes weathers
sun light moon light as at home        much here is
beautiful        dream like vistas reminding me of
home        item        have seen the rock place known
as garden of the gods and sacred to the first
indigenes        red monoliths of home        despite
the tensions i breathe in i am attracted to
the vigorous americans        disturbing sensuous
appeal of so many        never to be admitted

something they call the american dream        sure
we still believe in it i guess        an earth man
in the tavern said        irregardless of the some
times night mare facts we always try to double
talk our way around        and its okay the dreams
okay and means whats good could be a damn sight
better        means every body in the good old u s a
should have the chance to get ahead or at least
should have three squares a day        as for myself
i do okay        not crying hunger with a loaf of
bread tucked under my arm you understand        i
fear one does not clearly follow i replied
notice you got a funny accent pal        like where
you from he asked        far from here i mumbled
he stared hard        i left

must be more careful        item        learn to use okay
their pass word        okay

crowds gathering in the streets today for some
reason obscure to me        noise and violent motion
repulsive physical contact        sentinels        pigs
i heard them called        with flailing clubs        rage
and bleeding and frenzy and screaming        machines
wailing        unbearable decibels        i fled lest
vibrations of the brutal scene do further harm
to my metabolism already over taxed

The Counselors would never permit such barbarous
confusion        they know what is best for our sereni
ty        we are an ancient race and have outgrown
illusions cherished here        item        their vaunted
liberty        no body pushes me around i have heard
them say        land of the free they sing        what do
they fear mistrust betray more than the freedom
they boast of in their ignorant pride        have seen
the squalid ghettoes in their violent cities
paradox on paradox        how have the americans
managed to survive

parades fireworks displays video spectacles
much grandiloquence much buying and selling
they are celebrating their history        earth men
in antique uniforms play at the carnage whereby
the americans achieved identity        we too recall
that struggle as enterprise of suffering and
faith uniquely theirs        blonde miss teen age
america waving from a red white and blue flower
float as the goddess of liberty        a divided
people seeking reassurance from a past few under
stand and many scorn        why should we sanction
old hypocrisies        thus dissenters        The Counse
lors would silence them
a decadent people The Counselors believe        i
do not find them decadent        a refutation not
permitted me but for all their knowledge
power and inventiveness not yet more than raw
crude neophytes like earthlings everywhere

though i have easily passed for an american        in
bankers grey afro and dashiki long hair and jeans
hard hat yarmulka mini skirt        describe in some
detail for the amusement of The Counselors        and
though my skill in mimicry is impeccable        as
indeed The Counselors are aware        some thing
eludes me        some constant amid the variables
defies analysis and imitation        will i be judged
incompetent

america        as much a problem in metaphysics as
it is a nation earthly entity an iota in our
galaxy        an organism that changes even as i
examine it        fact and fantasy never twice the
same        so many variables

exert greater caution        twice have aroused
suspicion        returned to the ship until rumors
of humanoids from outer space        so their scoff
ing media voices termed us        had been laughed
away        my crew and i laughed too of course

confess i am curiously drawn        unmentionable        to
the americans        doubt i could exist among them for
long however        psychic demands far too severe
much violence        much that repels        i am attracted
none the less        their variousness their ingenuity
their elan vital        and that some thing        essence
quiddity        i cannot penetrate or name

More by Robert Hayden

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

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.

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