Another Strange Land: Downpour off Cape Hatteras (March, 1864)

                          for my ancestor
                          in the Pennsylvania 25th Colored Infantry
                          aboard the Suwanee

 

First a penny-sized hole in the hull
                     then eager saltwater rushing over
    us and clouds swirling and clotting
            the moonlight—no time to stop and look upon it
as the hole becomes an iron mouth,
    makes strange sounds, peels and tears
                        open iron as iron should not open—

muffled and heavy         us becoming underwater
                     we confused the metal echo and thunder
         as the same death knell from God’s mouth—

we been done           floated all this way down 
           in dark blue used
      uniforms, how far from slavers’ dried-out fields
in Virginia, Pennsylvania—wherever

                                         we came from now we   
         barely and only
                    see and hear an ocean
                                        whipped into storm

not horror, not glory, but storm
                   not fear, not power, but focus
             on the work of breathing, living as the storm
rocks us and our insides upside down        turns
                   hard tack into empty nausea—

                 so close to death I thought I saw the blaze-
            sick fields of Berryville again, the curling fingers
                             of tobacco, hurt fruit and flower—
                      but no, but         no.

             I say no to death now. I’m nobody’s slave
                                    now. I’m alive     and not alone,
one of those      who escaped and made    myself
                 a soldier a weapon a stone in David’s sling
       riding the air above the deep. I grow more dangerous
to those who want me. I ain’t going back
                                 to anywhere I been before.

                 I grab a bucket. You grab a bucket. We the 25th
       Pennsylvania Colored Infantry, newly formed
                            and too alive and close to free
          to sink below this midnight water. 36 hours—chaos
shoveling-lifting-throwing       ocean back into ocean
                         to reach land and war in the Carolinas. 

       I stole my body back       from death and going down
                        more than once. I steal my breath
           tonight and every night      I will not drown. 

More by Aaron Coleman

Very Many Hands

You remind me of the Underground Railroad. I’ve learned to watch
for the kerosene lamp aglare in your distance. Past the fuel and wick
at the far end of your forest, there’s a mud basement, a soot-slick coal
cellar with my sleeping body’s name on it. I could lie still forever in
that part of you. But then I’d never make it North.

                                              *  *  *

I am made of what I am afraid to remember. Come tell me more
about what I was—about the brothers, mind-ancient now, fleeing
Mississippi with spilled moon ready in their eyes. Go back and tell me
about that one before that one that sold a mother. Wait. Then give 
me more about the buzz of war, of San Diego shipyards, of 
handsome sailors you couldn’t trust. Make vivid the night with me 
before me in it. Tell me what was lost on the way to Detroit. Tell me
what was lost leaving Detroit. Tell me why I’m afraid for and of 
Detroit. Tell me Desire can’t mean what it meant anymore. And I 
can’t mean what I meant anymore. Am I lovesick with amnesia or 
nostalgia?

 

I sit twelve people down the church pew from you, trying to catch
the rhythm in your blinking. I seek more than your face. It hurts 
to see the way sound makes a tunnel. Its root-veined walls there then 
gone. You and I compose another kind.

                                              *  *  *

Witness my long line of lovestruck liars: those who can’t take the sky, 
deceivers of their own eyes, change lovers, receivers of forgetfulness, 
ecstatic touchmongers, merciless collagists, the spiritually jackknifed, 
ever-children and the like. I am each of them and heavy hands red on 
cold glass holding why-still-blue water, in dull music, surrounded by 
bloom, fear-lit and forever-fraught. This is a truth; not-quite-closed 
eyes scrambling over nakedness elusive as hope. But barely hope. 
Lovestruck, lying, I wonder about everything I’ll find in this body—
and this body. I wonder what it knows. I wonder about yours.

 

I am wrapped in a shawl of patchwork wants. Of languages displaced 
in veins. Of sheet rock cut open with explosives to force through 
byways and sow man-high seas of crops, to make space for 
interstates, for cold emergencies and tanks, and touch.

                                              *  *  *

I am stitched together with the risk inside Desire. Call risk a bridge. 
Call one palm full of why-still-blue water—oh, how my mind is just 
my mind crossing. Not the limb of a ghost stuck in the hinge of a 
door. Not the fight lost inherent in a child. Who was it that dipped an 
index finger into my mouth, fished that penny from my tongue, 
saved me from some dumb Desire? Who was it? Who watched as I 
stood there too in line, too silent, trying to fall behind, an almost 
question in my near-new eyes?

The Broken Man’s Permission

A crocodile slips its earth-toned body
back into the river, in silence, violence down
and for its nightness

I cannot see the water. With fear
I am alone. Slick rocks smile thin anonymous light, they lie

about what I am. I see and try to hold
my body in my body, trace a vein
from the base of my palm through

the crook of my elbow, armpit, home—home
makes no sense. I've given up on what I know.

This blindness is a mirror turning
back to sand still hollowed, where
every sound is amplified. I want to be the crocodile’s

stomach that is my father, teeth
that are my mother, vertebrae

that aggregate the spine that are loves, knuckled
angles casing nerves. It’s me wading around
inside, mouth open. A humid numbness dense, low,

beneath the undertow: hands that coax and claim
my scaled neck, soothe and pull

each knotted shoulder. I give in to a third of moon caught
in cloud, its orange-grey halo drawn away
from what can be named, known. A curse and prayer

to go unchanged within this water, my movement
foreign, a rootless gurgle, flit of river vines

caging the dwindling
river’s brutal bed, the gorge, flushed
with new food: the blue heron’s bone-flight collapsed,

tangled feathers along the mudglut bank’s
saliva, lifting like shame in the open.

Related Poems

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.

Bury Me in a Free Land

Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill; 
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother's shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I'd shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother's arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

Dirt

I got one part of it. Sell them watermelons and get me another part. Get Bernice to sell that piano and I’ll have the third part.
—August Wilson

We who gave, owned nothing,
learned the value of dirt, how
a man or a woman can stand
among the unruly growth,
look far into its limits,
a place of stone and entanglements,
and suddenly understand
the meaning of a name, a deed,
a currency of personhood.
Here, where we have labored
for another man’s gain, if it is fine
to own dirt and stone, it is
fine to have a plot where
a body may be planted to rot.
We who have built only
that which others have owned
learn the ritual of trees,
the rites of fruit picked
and eaten, the pleasures
of ownership. We who
have fled with sword
at our backs know the things
they have stolen from us, and we
will walk naked and filthy
into the open field knowing
only that this piece of dirt,
this expanse of nothing,
is the earnest of our faith
in the idea of tomorrow.
We will sell our bones
for a piece of dirt,
we will build new tribes
and plant new seeds
and bury our bones in our dirt.