Published on Academy of American Poets (

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. 


Copyright © 2020 by Aaron Coleman. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 24, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“In summer 2018, I went on a road trip with my family from Detroit to the small town in Pennsylvania where my late grandfather grew up and many of my cousins still live. One of my cousins found the tombstone of our ancestor in a graveyard next to a one-room cabin, now a ruin, that was a church at the turn of the 20th century. His tombstone includes his military unit and, because my industrious cousin tracked down his military records, I was able to research where his company was at various points during the Civil War. I learned he was aboard the nearly shipwrecked Suwanee in 1864 and, given that so much Black history has been erased and denied, I never dreamed I would have this opportunity to know about my great, great, great grandfather’s life. Records state that he escaped from slavery in Virginia at some point in the early 1860s and enlisted in January, 1864… something in me felt compelled to write a persona poem imagining this one of likely many near-death moments in his life and what he had to survive for me to be possible today.”
Aaron Coleman


Aaron Coleman

Aaron Coleman is the author of Threat Come Close (Four Way Books, 2018), winner of the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, and St. Trigger (Button Poetry, 2016), winner of the Button Chapbook Prize. Coleman is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and Translation Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Date Published: 2020-03-24

Source URL: