If you believe what you hear, he was everywhere
from Virginia to Alabama just beyond every holler.
Which is to say he was everywhere and everywhere
he was, he was unwanted. In one story, they say it
happened because if a white man said it happened,
then it happened. In another, he was a prisoner which
is more plausible because only a man who lives in darkness
can be felled by the light. But if it happened that often,
there had to be more than one, or maybe it was everyone
or all of us and maybe he stood down there at the cold face
shoulders stooped and begged a mountain move
which we all have done some time or another. Maybe he
prayed for strength to move it as we do some time or
another. But this we can say is true: the world sent
a man down into the earth one day—the same world
who fixed his shackles, closed each door, the world
which said no, and no, and no like so many stones.
The world sent a man into the earth one day to leave
him. That man emerged from the earth with one word
that the earth had been holding, and in that moment
he broke the earth, stumbled out into the chilly air
before he fell, he brought this one word to us. Liar.
Copyright © 2017 by TJ Jarrett. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 9, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
About this Poem
“I’d been thinking about work and what women and persons of color endure. I thought of John Henry who (after a short Google search) appeared to have been in every town and died a thousand times for the singular crime of excellence.”
TJ Jarrett is the author of Zion (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition.
Date Published: 2017-05-09
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/john-henry