Those Winter Sundays

Robert Hayden - 1913-1980

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?

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.

Related Poems

Natural History

Late afternoon, autumn equinox,
and my daughter and I
are at the table silently
eating fried eggs and muffins,
sharp cheese, and yesterday’s
rice warmed over. We put
our paper plates in the woodstove
and go outside:
                                 sunlight
fills the alders with
the geometries of long
blonde hair, and twin ravens
ride the rollercoasters
of warm September air
out, toward Protection Island.

Together, we enter the roughed-in
room beside our cabin
and begin our toil together:
she, cutting and stapling
insulation; I, cutting
and nailing the tight rows
of cedar. We work in a silence
broken only by occasional banter.
I wipe the cobwebs
from nooks and sills, working
on my knees as though this prayer
of labor could save me, as though
the itch of fiberglass
and sawdust were an answer
to some old incessant question
I never dare to remember.

And when the evening comes on
at last, cooling our arms
and faces, we stop
and stand back to assess
our work together.
                                 And I
remember the face
of my father climbing down
from a long wooden ladder
thirty years before. He
was a tall strong sapling
smelling of tar and leather,
his pate bald and burned
to umber by a sun
that blistered the Utah desert.
He strode the rows of coops
with a red cocker spaniel
and tousled boy-child
at his heel.
                         I turn to look
at my daughter: her mop
of blonde curls catches
the last trembling light
of the day, her lean body
sways with weariness. I try,
but cannot remember
the wisdom of fourteen years,
the pleasures of that
discovery. Eron smiles.

At the stove, we wash up
as the sun dies in a candle-flame.
A light breeze tears
the first leaves of autumn
from boughs that slowly darken.
A squirrel, enraged,
castigates the dog
for some inscrutable intrusion,
and Eron climbs the ladder
to her loft.
                         Suddenly
I am utterly alone,
I am a child
gazing up at a father, a father
looking down at his daughter.
A strange shudder
comes over me like a chill.
Is this what there is
to remember – the long days
roofing coops, the building
of rooms on a cabin, the in
significant meal? The shadows
of moments mean everything
and nothing, the dying
landscapes of remembered
human faces freeze
into a moment.
                         My room
was in the basement, was
knotty pine, back there,
in diamondback country.
The night swings over
the cold Pacific. I pour
a cup of coffee, heavy
in my bones. Soon, this fine
young woman will stare into
the face of her own son
or daughter, the years
gone suddenly behind her.
Will she remember only
the ache, the immense satisfaction
of that longing?
                         May she
be happy, filled
with the essential,
working in the twilight,
on her knees, at autumn equinox,
gathering the stories
of silence together,
preparing to meet the winter.