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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, 
our 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 a 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 Quincey 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.


by Robert Hayden |

O Daedalus Fly Away Home

 (For Maia and Julie) 

Drifting night in the Georgia pines, 
coonskin drum and jubilee banjo. 
Pretty Malinda, dance with me. 

Night is juba, night is congo. 
Pretty Malinda, dance with me. 

Night is an African juju man 
weaving a wish and a weariness together 
to make two wings. 

O fly away home fly away 

Do you remember Africa? 

O cleave the air fly away home 

My gran, he flew back to Africa, 
just spread his arms and 
flew away home. 

Drifting night in the windy pines; 
night is laughing, night is a longing. 
Pretty Malinda, come to me. 

Night is a mourning juju man 
weaving a wish and a weariness together 
to make two wings. 

O fly away home fly away


by Robert Hayden |

Those Winter Sundays

 Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback 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?


by Robert Hayden |

The Whipping

 The old woman across the way
 is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
 her goodness and his wrongs.

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
 pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
 pursues and corners him.

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
 boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
 to woundlike memories:

My head gripped in bony vise
 of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
 worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I
 no longer knew or loved . . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
 and the boy sobs in his room,

And the woman leans muttering against
 a tree, exhausted, purged--
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
 she has had to bear.


by Robert Hayden |

Soledad

 (And I, I am no longer of that world)

Naked, he lies in the blinded room
chainsmoking, cradled by drugs, by jazz
as never by any lover's cradling flesh.

Miles Davis coolly blows for him:
O pena negra, sensual Flamenco blues;
the red clay foxfire voice of Lady Day

(lady of the pure black magnolias)
sobsings her sorrow and loss and fare you well,
dryweeps the pain his treacherous jailers

have released him from for a while.
His fears and his unfinished self
await him down in the anywhere streets.

He hides on the dark side of the moon,
takes refuge in a stained-glass cell,
flies to a clockless country of crystal.

Only the ghost of Lady Day knows where
he is. Only the music. And he swings
oh swings: beyond complete immortal now.


by Robert Hayden |

Runagate Runagate

 Runs falls rises stumbles on from darkness into darkness 
and the darkness thicketed with shapes of terror 
and the hunters pursuing and the hounds pursuing 
and the night cold and the night long and the river 
to cross and the jack-muh-lanterns beckoning beckoning 
and blackness ahead and when shall I reach that somewhere
morning and keep on going and never turn back and keep on going

 Runagate
 Runagate
 Runagate

Many thousands rise and go
many thousands crossing over
 0 mythic North
 0 star-shaped yonder Bible city

Some go weeping and some rejoicing 
some in coffins and some in carriages 
some in silks and some in shackles

 Rise and go or fare you well

No more auction block for me
no more driver's lash for me

 If you see my Pompey, 30 yrs of age, 
 new breeches, plain stockings, negro shoes; 
 if you see my Anna, likely young mulatto 
 branded E on the right cheek, R on the left, 
 catch them if you can and notify subscriber. 
 Catch them if you can, but it won't be easy.
 They'll dart underground when you try to catch them, 
 plunge into quicksand, whirlpools, mazes, 
 torn into scorpions when you try to catch them.

And before I'll be a slave 
I'll be buried in my grave

 North star and bonanza gold
 I'm bound for the freedom, freedom-bound 
 and oh Susyanna don't you cry for me

 Runagate

 Runagate


II.
Rises from their anguish and their power,

 Harriet Tubman,

 woman of earth, whipscarred,
 a summoning, a shining

 Mean to be free

 And this was the way of it, brethren brethren, 
 way we journeyed from Can't to Can. 
 Moon so bright and no place to hide, 
 the cry up and the patterollers riding, 
 hound dogs belling in bladed air.
 And fear starts a-murbling, Never make it, 
 we'll never make it. Hush that now, 
 and she's turned upon us, levelled pistol 
 glinting in the moonlight:
 Dead folks can't jaybird-talk, she says; 
 you keep on going now or die, she says.

Wanted Harriet Tubman alias The General 
alias Moses Stealer of Slaves

In league with Garrison Alcott Emerson 
Garrett Douglass Thoreau John Brown
Armed and known to be Dangerous 

Wanted Reward Dead or Alive

 Tell me, Ezekiel, oh tell me do you see 
 mailed Jehovah coming to deliver me?

Hoot-owl calling in the ghosted air, 
five times calling to the hants in the air. 
Shadow of a face in the scary leaves, 
shadow of a voice in the talking leaves:

 Come ride-a my train

 Oh that train, ghost-story train 
 through swamp and savanna movering movering,
 over trestles of dew, through caves of the wish, 
 Midnight Special on a sabre track movering movering,
 first stop Mercy and the last Hallelujah.

 Come ride-a my train

 Mean mean mean to be free.


by Robert Hayden |

Perseus

 Her sleeping head with its great gelid mass
of serpents torpidly astir
burned into the mirroring shield--
a scathing image dire
as hated truth the mind accepts at last
and festers on.
I struck. The shield flashed bare.

Yet even as I lifted up the head
and started from that place
of gazing silences and terrored stone,
I thirsted to destroy.
None could have passed me then--
no garland-bearing girl, no priest
or staring boy--and lived.


by Robert Hayden |

Perseus

 The Triumph of Wit Over Suffering

Head alone shows you in the prodigious act
Of digesting what centuries alone digest:
The mammoth, lumbering statuary of sorrow,
Indissoluble enough to riddle the guts
Of a whale with holes and holes, and bleed him white
Into salt seas. Hercules had a simple time,
Rinsing those stables: a baby's tears would do it.
But who'd volunteer to gulp the Laocoon,
The Dying Gaul and those innumerable pietas
Festering on the dim walls of Europe's chapels,
Museums and sepulchers? You.
 You
Who borrowed feathers for your feet, not lead,
Not nails, and a mirror to keep the snaky head
In safe perspective, could outface the gorgon-grimace
Of human agony: a look to numb
Limbs: not a basilisk-blink, nor a double whammy,
But all the accumulated last grunts, groans,
Cries and heroic couplets concluding the million
Enacted tragedies on these blood-soaked boards,
And every private twinge a hissing asp
To petrify your eyes, and every village
Catastrophe a writhing length of cobra,
And the decline of empires the thick coil of a vast
Anacnoda.
 Imagine: the world
Fisted to a foetus head, ravined, seamed
With suffering from conception upwards, and there
You have it in hand. Grit in the eye or a sore
Thumb can make anyone wince, but the whole globe
Expressive of grief turns gods, like kings, to rocks.
Those rocks, cleft and worn, themselves then grow
Ponderous and extend despair on earth's
Dark face.
 So might rigor mortis come to stiffen
All creation, were it not for a bigger belly
Still than swallows joy.
 You enter now,
Armed with feathers to tickle as well as fly,
And a fun-house mirror that turns the tragic muse
To the beheaded head of a sullen doll, one braid,
A bedraggled snake, hanging limp as the absurd mouth
Hangs in its lugubious pout. Where are
The classic limbs of stubborn Antigone?
The red, royal robes of Phedre? The tear-dazzled
Sorrows of Malfi's gentle duchess?
 Gone
In the deep convulsion gripping your face, muscles
And sinews bunched, victorious, as the cosmic
Laugh does away with the unstitching, plaguey wounds
Of an eternal sufferer.
 To you
Perseus, the palm, and may you poise
And repoise until time stop, the celestial balance
Which weighs our madness with our sanity.


by Robert Hayden |

The Prisoners

 Steel doors – guillotine gates – 
of the doorless house closed massively.
We were locked in with loss. 

Guards frisked us, marked our wrists,
then let us into the drab Rec Hall –
splotched green walls, high windows barred –

where the dispossessed awaited us.
Hands intimate with knife and pistol,
hands that had cruelly grasped and throttled

clasped ours in welcome. I sensed the plea
of men denied: Believe us human
like yourselves, who but for Grace ...

We shared reprieving Hidden Words
revealed by the Godlike imprisoned
One, whose crime was truth. 

And I read poems I hoped were true.
It's like you been there, brother, been there,
the scarred young lifer said.


by Robert Hayden |

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)

 O masks and metamorphoses of Ahab, Native Son

I

The icy evil that struck his father down
and ravished his mother into madness
trapped him in violence of a punished self
struggling to break free.

As Home Boy, as Dee-troit Red,
he fled his name, became the quarry of
his own obsessed pursuit.

He conked his hair and Lindy-hopped,
zoot-suited jiver, swinging those chicks
in the hot rose and reefer glow.

His injured childhood bullied him.
He skirmished in the Upas trees
and cannibal flowers of the American Dream--

but could not hurt the enemy
powered against him there.