[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

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.

Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful 
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,   
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,   
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,   
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more   
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:   
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro   
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world   
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,   
this man, superb in love and logic, this man   
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,   
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone, 
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives   
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

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