Middle Passage

"The Slave Ship," originally titled "Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on" by J.M. Turner, 1840

“The Slave Ship,” originally titled “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on” by J.M. Turner, 1840


Slave ships blighting coasts, foul ships reeking oceans,
death ships freighting black souls to the seller’s block:
I am the middle passage which bottoms the human vale,
indenturing black bodies to the cord which binds the bale,
the great Atlantic commerce burning blood for oil.

Villagers and fishermen, farmer and warriors,
craftsmen and priests—their wives and children too—
stripped from home and culture in one ghastly wail,
dying by the million to disease and cat o’ nine tail,
thrown overboard to feed the sharks, chum death’s swale,
the door beyond the door beyond which hope fails.

The cogs of industry are cabinned below in
a swale of sweat and blood, shit and screams,
a shrieking compost worse than corpse fumes.
What sin rudders the slaveship’s retched tomb
harvesting a mind chained to both sides of servitude?
How to expiate a founding sin so monstrously accrued?

A story, then, hauled up in the bleeding net of history:
In 1753, three slaves aboard a English ship Barbados-bound—
former warriors, former fathers, former men—plotted
against the industry which mined their souls from them.
They feinted dropsy one morning on the deck—it was a fine,
breezy day for sailing death to doom—and just when
a space was cleared for them, the three leapt up
and sprinted off the starboard to black the winedark sea.

The sailors were aghast: indenture is a licensed slave;
Boats were lowered but by then two had drowned.
The third was captured and dragged back up on board
to be whipped and cut and cursed within a lick of death,
charged with the crime of liberating death from slavery
Then kept him chained below until he died and
threw his unproductive body to the sharks,
there to divide the Master’s portion to his marks.

Every middle passage is halved by life and ghosts:
as slaves died the spirit tally grew, unchained
and surgent, a wisp-faced, wailing crew, aggrieved
for lack of proper burial, respect or alms,
no family to pay homage, no countrymen to bow
their foreheads to the ground for them: They
are free of life and yet they cannot leave,
these ghosts of middle passage. Back of every
piercing cry you hear them sigh, in lifeless scrum,
louder every night after another slave succumbed.

The only grace is the drifting sleep that comes
from drowning in the freedom of nocturnes deep.
To leap that far is what slaves pray for; to fail that
much is what their singers wove in blues.
Listen to the drowned ones singing through the sliding
hold, muffled yet clear enough, a glittery gold
of hunts and battles, of children strong and bold.

Twenty million brothers mothers and cousins
tribe that dark continent deep below, the silent
grave plowed by four centuries of middle passage.
Don’t you know each slave ship tolls a later bell,
resounding black blood in a splashing knell
whenever you pay tender to buy swell things?

That slave ship was later found abandoned
off the coast of Jacksonville Beach, no sign of
captain, crew or slaves: Just a keel upbellied at dawn,
naked and bankrupt of any inkling of purpose,
a ruin round which the surf in rhythm sings,
humble in the grace which the massa’s Master brings.

Signify all voyages with its skulled keel,
bared this day so you may remember what
I am truly fraught with. No bright sail,
no bosomed bowsprit’s augur can quite retail
safe sleep at night: not when middle passages
are so deeply locked away, like old dogs to let lie,
the basement wound we wish would die.

As if history was a ghost ship that we pray
the sharks of time would devour full away.

They’re all bled into the interior, you know,
slaves and sailors, captain too, hauling at the oars
which the land by night galleys through our hell,
spent oil, if you will, rainbowing the chum
of perfect glistening bodies reclining on the beach,
a nightmare scream just beyond the little shouts
of children whirling round cotton candy afternoons
in the middle kingdom of the Master’s Mouse,

still chained in a reeking dark no torch can souse,
sailing on to glory in my middle murder house.

St. Oran’s Day, 2016





“The slaver is a ghost ship sailing on the edges of modern consciousness,” writes Marcus Rediker in The Slave Ship: A Human History (Penguin Books, 2007). If we despair the death of the American Dream, we must remember it was erected on a foundation of horror. In his introduction Rediker writes, “This has been a painful book to write, and if I have done any justice to the subject, it will be a painful book to read. There is no way around this, nor should there be. I offer this study with the greatest reverence for those who suffered almost unthinkable violence, terror, and death, in the firm belief that we must remember that such horrors have always been, and remain, central to the making of global capitalism.”

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Filed under Black and Blue, Death, Devotions, Floridiana, Infernos, Octoberals, Oracles of The Damned, Oran, Ship of Fools, The Sea, Voyagers, Writing to The Dead




All around the watchtower
we circled thirty years and more
expecting wind or night to happen
a wooden ship at least a shore

But song was just passing through
like a wagon of junk goods
The genius of an empty pot
that clatters moving on

Now the nights are colder
and the wind blows wicked keen
around the watchtower
no one has ever seen

the one we keep on circling
the spire beam’s black echoing

October 2016

For the Dylanesque challenge at Real Toads


Filed under Oran

The Art of Yearning


Cliffs of Moher, Ireland.


I’m learning to write the way I always
yearned to play piano. Not the upright in
the family parlor that I banged on trying
to read sheet music for a year.  Nor
the spinet in a college rehearsal
room when I studied theory. I mean
the old Steinway in my aunt and uncle’s
living room overlooking a lake in
that defeated season when they took me in.
Days I worked and nights I drank, both
in futility of dreams my young heart had
barely learned the cost of. Desperate to
find love again, as if reaching its beachside
bed would somehow halt the falling. Or
at least redeem it. Having hit the rocks
and so many times by age 25 to sense
that such yearning might be fatal.

That baby grand piano  had seen
hard use for decades by a family who
loved music. By then my cousins had all moved out.
Only my aunt sat down now and then, playing
Mozart from sheet music though she knew
it by heart. The Steinway had keys that plinked
so heavily yet soft, with clout most delicate,
like an ocean booming into ocean cliffs,
where salt spray mists the wings of gulls.
A place for falling angels to sing Glory.

Hungover, broke, angry at the world for
failing to welcome me and half-mad from
petit-mal seizures frothed by hard abuse,
I would sit there on grey winter
afternoons playing tuneful bits of this and that,
failing to work anything toward completion.
“Ditties,” my uncle called them, runs without
much shape to them, with no proper beginnings
or discernable ends. He was right. Having
scant training and no discipline, instead
I wove aching chords onto a lattice I
found mostly by mistake. With only my
yearning to serve as tutor and applause.

I loved the way that Steinway could
climb all the way up to the dizziest
aeries of the world: But it was the falling
that trellised yearning’s greater sound,
releasing something richer than desire
as I worked down the keys’ waterfall
to dead sea bottom. I learned then that
high notes need a bass cleff’s magnitude
to hold heaven in place; that every low
chord lifts a slowly spreading choir.

Whatever I was elsewhere, no matter
how poorly I repeated my mistakes each night,
at that piano I perched as close to ecstasy
as a lonely boy becoming solitary man can get.
Winter greys reflected on the stilled lake, nearby
traffic picking up its drone, reminding me that night
was coming soon. I could feel that thirst stirring in
its grave, tapping from inside the piano bench
for another futile round. But not yet. For a
half-hour more I roamed up and down that
Steinway’s keys, a dilettante with unschooled hands
roaming fields of glory I could never own
and have only and most poorly borne.

It takes strange craft to learn the art of yearning.
To need a music so much more than one can play it.
To hear it so much more than a heart could weigh it.
To name it everywhere love can’t or won’t be found.

A thousand nights I’d driven out expecting
to find love any where and failed. Each nightly
ascent and fall through bar and bottle and
blurring bed joined a choir of chords too
bittersweetly perfect to sustain.  And gone
so fast, no matter how hard I pressed the
brass reverb pedal down. Our feathers are
made of stone, our wings were torn in heaven:
The falling part of yearning’s hard.
But O what fleeting views we’re given!

Three decades later, I’m trying to write
with the same willed trespass of those
fatal afternoons. Seated before that
Steinway’s keys with yearning youth intact.
Alone and happy and entranced by the
work at hand. Knowing that writing this way
isn’t about playing pianos well. It’s about
letting love’s perfection sour.  It’s about songs
that don’t begin and cannot end, woven
with a recklessness unsafe in any life.
And stumbling now and then onto a hidden
beach where the next wave somehow breaks
more gorgeously than all the ones before
just once before its gone. Its about letting it go
with defiance, nailing reverb pedal to the floor.

The art of yearning is much like flying
when falling grasps its broken soar. I’m
learning to write a poem by failing to.
I write for that moment which always
came after that young man had run through
all the riffs he loved too much. When
he realized once again the foolery of yearning
with amateurish hands. I’m swearing off
yearning the way I used to swear off booze.
Staring out the window at the lake for
a long sustaining moment. Finding the nothing
out there too massive for inward sweetness.

I’m almost there seeing him in frustration
and defeat shut the keyboard cover and
sulk off, hungry thirsty horny itching to
go out and drink the dregs of yearning.

I write for when that young man’s gone,
far enough away from the stilling instrument
to fail to hear it whisper Yes,
the silent dead cry Shore.

March 2014; reposted Oct. 2016



Submitted to Real Toads’ Tuesday Platform


Filed under Art and Heart, Beauty Heals, Devotions, Grails, Music, Mystery, Oran, Otherworlds, poetics, Remembrance, Shamanism, The Dead, The Sea, Voyagers, Writing

Still Life



The image is singular and still,
dreadfully so, a room dead for years.
Forgotten the way dreams remember
them, turning our gaze casually
toward a door and there it is.

How could I have lost this place
and how long has it been?
A little old church, with
a severed leg on the altar
almost marble now in time’s
perfection, smooth as the bone
which cages the soul bird.

Beams of light stark as stripes,
motes thick and floating, heaven’s
middle congregation, holding
the last hymn heard in here—
ages ago—a stilled benediction
welcoming now only the lost.

God how dead you are. Like a
saint nailed to a cross etched
on a headstone two feet under
a forest’s perpetual falling.

Paradise walks crippled here,
failed in the sprint to glory.
A little church to altar what’s
behind the next dream’s door.

Its sorrow not personal.

Its ropeless bell
the reliquary of heaven.

An amen now spire
to grander starlight,

still faintly ringing.

October 2016



In the story of Bran in the Mabinogion, the giant Welsh king travels to Ireland to rescue his sister Branwen from ill-treatment by her husband, the King of Ireland. In the ensuing fight, Bran is mortally wounded and asks his men to cut his head off and bury it at the White Mount in London. Mananann is in the retinue carrying Bran’s head to London. En route the men stop at a castle overlooking the sea which has two open doors and one closed. As long as they leave the third door closed, they feast in total bliss, forgetting all their losses. But a curious one opens the third door and the awful memories flood back. Similarly, as long as Bran’s head remains buried at the White Mount, all is well in the land; but when it is dug up, pesilence and ruin ensue. (Remember that Saint Oran’s head was uncovered after three days and nights in the footers of the Iona abbey, speaking words of Otherworld truth which chills the Christian bone to the marrow every Hallowe’en.)

I’ve been working on saving an abandoned African American church outside of town; these images are of the church, which hasn’t been used for 10 years since the death of the next-to-last parishioner. You can read about it here.

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The Guardians



They stand atop a distant hill, each a history
and together assembling into a woven place
which marrows all tomorrow must embrace.

They’re standing like cemetery headstones
or the pillars of Callanish, anywhere the wind is cruel
& light is uncertain, crepuscular yet cerulean,

some last and first knowledge of magnitude
which broods depth of time like standing stone.
And always on a hill where starlight sings …

Did they congregate here ten thousand years ago
or are they now happening? Do stones evolve?
Are they bards or historians, poets or physicians?

What bids them loom their individual passions
for sacred truth into this way of standing together,
grounding and engirding like a church on a hill?

Place grounds the culture we are born and buried through
like the home whose current made us happy all these years.
The guardians net the night sky to noria lost oceans,

pouring those arch blue currents into an old jeweled chalice.
Their sadness is the ghost grove which rounds them
in the moody mist of dying night, here yet gone forever.

Half-buried, the guardians root and canopy my heart,
enriched to bursting with the blood of ancient art.
Starlight on a hill where twelve bells echo out.

From a dream, October 2016





The abandoned African American church just outside of town which I’m trying to help save used to sit atop a hill (above) before it was moved for highway construction in 1959. A cemetery is supposed to be nearby though no one has seen it in decades. The present owner of the property digs into it for clay and fill dirt. My thought these days runs toward a preservation of culture akin to the Irish monks of the mid-first millennium who wrote down all the tales of the old Celtic oral culture. This moment feels deeply akin to that.

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Filed under Big Night Music, Coding the Sidhe, Culture, Death, Devotions, Dream, History, Immrama, Mystery, Neolithics, Octoberals, Oran, Post-Christianity, Scriptorium Down Under, the library down under, Vespers, Writing to The Dead

Blowsy Jones



All will go out soon
with a great knock at the door.

Who is it standing there
gripping this jack-o-lantern
of wind?

Tall as abyss with
a mask of sea gale,
boots mucked with kelp.

The cape a black sail
torn from a split mast,
waving around the
skull’s eyeless aura

now filling the door
with the insides of gourds:

stringy & gooey,

suddenly dark.

October 2016



Submitted to Mama Zen’s Words Count challenge,
while theres’ still juice


Filed under Oran



Cold the old gods’ pews at Callanish,
bald and fuckin lonely  too, raked by
North Sea blasts which crack
these granite plinths like balls.

Bitter the old feud between sea
and land, waves attacking with
such fury the shore thunders
for miles inland, prying me loose
from every bed I barrow in.

Well, I got the hell on outta there.
Fled the temple and pitched
my singing robe off the island’s
northern rocks. Caught the ferry
to Oban & took a train to Glasgow.
Hocked my gold torc and bought

a seat on the PanAm to New York.
In the middle of our crossing we
were chased by Thor’s wind-orcs,
the 757 lurching and pitching, everyone

screaming in the tumult. At Newark
I bought an old Caddy convertible &
hit the highway South, molting with the
summer down the Appalachian spine

like an snake crawled free of god.
Highway traffic flowing fast and free
through lulling mountain valleys, each
next town more rounded with the heat

than the last, smells blowing in ripe with
the sweat of travel, the funk of dark next
towns. The radio played Roy Orbison and
Elvis, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pasty Cline,

southern bourbons all, sour-mashing
down the corn gods with roadworn,
muddy boots. It seemed to me that god
surf was dying at last, fading from my ears.

Near Jacksonville I got drunk at some
roadhouse, the barmaid taking a shine
to my cold Scots brogue, smiling like
Brigid herself in that smoky poteen,

her sweet-tea twang like brandy
in my ears. Met me after closing time
back in my hotel room; bid me lay on
the bed and slowly undressed,

peeling off the uniform to reveal
the goddess underneath, her nakedness
like the small gentle surf that plashed
mere yards from our motel window.

Our kiss: pure South.

When I woke the next morning she
was gone, as if hauled off by the tide,
taking in her womb the salty depths
of me, ex-vicar of the wicked North Sea.

I felt so refreshed, star and stone
and eternal cold washed clean away;
But walking to my car the day seemed
off — the hour too late, too early,

the light not right for summer, the
motel behind me collapsed in a heap,
weeds everywhere in the cracked pavement,
my wings warped, my feathers half gone.

The Caddy was bent and wrinkled like
St. Oran’s skull; and when I rolled out
of the parking lot, I noticed that the
odometer had turned 3 million — all very

strange. The day was hotter, the road
a white sear down a breadth of heat-flattened
scrub troubled occasionally by the
piled bones of semis. On the radio I rolled

the dial to no avail, picking up white
noise that bore the fins of heavy
metal and crossover country, the
flukes of endless talk of angry men

without a shore. A couple of hours later
driving through Orlando I saw rising
in the haze the tourist attractions
like a beloved’s crotch — a dewy

clump of bluegrey thrills — but that’s
when something tanked, bad going gone south.
The car sped; my foot pumped the brake;
it crumbled into dust. The Caddy’s tires

lost their rubber and then their wheels;
and then was no highway I  could see,
just a downward primal stream, carrying
the next sacrifice — me — flailing down

to the southernmost end of things
where a hurricane waited with arms
spread wide, wetting its lips, straining
for the wicker Scot’s windiest bourne.

Every angel, you know, is terrible.



Submitted to d’Verse Poets’ Open Link Night



Filed under Celtic myth, Myth and Archetype, Mythology, Poetry, The Sea

The Shipwreck



Perhaps no is meant to survive
the final gale—wind at boiling roar
with all masts cracking, hull split,
cold seas inpouring, enveloping,
doom drifting us in flakes to hell,
captain, cook, cat and sailors all.

God Almighty metes His judgments
adding and subtracting heaven’s till
according to the measure of His will
in every human heart: There’s no art
in Death’s irruption, and so we are
left to shiver naked in our sins
at whatever moment fate inters us
from the sailing tomb we roam.

Survival to next crashing shores
only increases the debt we cannot pay,
ankles stroked by gripless waves
gazing back to becalmed doom.
Down the way are one, two others
who too found a way past shipwreck,
shaking off the sand and tackle and
staring dazed and vacant at a page
now turned and waiting for the pen.

Just what is it that we survived
and what now will we begin?

What part of heart stays shipwrecked
no matter how much further it fares on?

And where’s the margin in more sailing
when there’s a face now in each wave,
a bloody shore to every dawn?

September 2016

Submitted to Real Toads’ Shipwreck Challenge


Filed under Immrama, Oran, Scriptorium Down Under, Ship of Fools, The Sea, Voyagers

The Masks Of Heaven



The abandoned cemetery isn’t far
from here though you might think so,
looking at all the tidy houses and
trimmed yards which line this street:

But you should have learned by now
how masks reveal their wearers,
the pearled surface of happiness
cursed by old eyes staring through.

Duration is just a ruse; if you
stick around you’ll see it falter
like a bone chewed too long:
the mask’s edges start to droop

from saggy cords and then
you’re face to skull with
full moonlight after 3 a.m.,
a face beaming eternal night.

What this town has become
in the uneven ravages of time
is a place drained even of place—
everything carnal and spiritual

attracted elsewhere, amped to
big-box blickerbulbs of not:
cities, malls, celebrities,
channels, devices, rot.

A place existing on but that’s all,
just as empty as the lost boneyard
without the peace of the forgotten
& carrying the curse it crossed.

Is there a principle which states
that the meek inherit Earth?
Do the fallen places in this country—
ruined miles of working-class Detroit,

the Chicago morgue receiving all
the bodies of the murdered,
ridded with our glut of bullets
bursting from fear’s silo—:

Do those places whisper slowly
ever more loudly our collective fate
creeping in with its king tide
inexorably over us all?

Does an abandoned cemetery echo
in our sleep in a language that in waking
to the next day sounds like static on
a radio almost tuning to a song?

And when you drive those last streets home
on your daily commute from work,
doesn’t the light, unrolled now in
autumn foil, seem not so much golden

as gilt now sere, like sunlight passing
through the top leagues of abyss,
the way a burnt page looks a
hundred nights after you found it?

Over in the cemetery, death is a head
hunched below earthen shoulders
like a long-collapsed pumpkin,
forest litter covering the markers,

palmettos fanning twenty feet high.
Healing over as nature must because
only we must not forget death
then mask it with all our might.

No one’s even seen the graveyard
for fifty years, not since the black church
was moved to make way for the highway
which was moved away from town—

the groves grew thicker and then froze
and then were cut down, clay and sand
mauled out for the highway project &
idle now, waiting for development.

How could any place be more desolate
than wherever those old black bodies lie
aside from my home street in this
my late perhaps last home town,

charming enough as masks will do
while inside the living stare at TVs
changing after infinite channel,
wondering why there’s nothing to see?

September 2016



In 1959 an African-Amerian church was moved from atop the knoll in the background to make room for a highway. There’s a cemetery still up there, lost in the brush. Stoneybrook Plaza with its Publix supermarket (left) was built around 2010.


Filed under Oran

Almost Blues



It’s a simple 12-bar progression,
bar to night to nothing’s blight
back to bar for one last height
of lowdown yearning far too right,
too dope, for the silken sway
which ropes midnight:

The sound of it’s your homeless heart,
squandered by all the gambits of
this bullshit art, burning
for what always turns out
to be just distant, freezing stars,
the silent welcome of blackout
flickering out in a junebag’s jar.

Some part of you will forever
linger in the Blue Dog’s jaws,
trapped in the amber of slow blues,
your eyes rapt upon that spotlight
which always forms a bright shadow
around the woman onstage who sings
ands chords the blues just so,
drowning on a sea guitar.

The sound of it’s so strange, both
intimate and dead, like moonlight
white and black across the sleeping
back of a lover forever sailed away.
To and fro the chords slowdance
in a blue-to-blacker scrawl,
weaving failure on a silver loom
of twisty smackdust falls,

rounds in perfect step with the
way you turn your shotglass as
you lift it to your lips, screwing if not
courage then the gall to safecrack happiness—
its the Drinker’s Tao the blues mirror,
surrender to the profanity of death
en route to ecstasy, tripping all the way,,
godlike the way the blue bells ring,
the sound of twelve steps falling.

Can you hear the tritones miss
their marks, nailing what it mean
to fail perfection truly? That’s the smoke
inside unquiet blues, almost getting to
an honest turning point but faltering
a half-tone shy, blurring the distinction
between root and fifth with a curtain’s
wavering sigh, diminishing the stout
narrative of I and Thou into another
grey scud of weedy skies at the far end
of last call at the last bar’s empty door.

There’s comfort in that, plush and
smoky like the fifth whiskey, lush
in the sorrow of the woman’s voice
trailing off this short of any career,
ending up with all the starless bums
who drink like stride pianos, dum de dum,
bluing every hope to fateful shore.

To sing such blues is to turn the shotglass
like a pistol chamber’s roulette wheel,
aiming lonely midnight after midnight
into a blue and blacker heart, O so perfectly,
as if rapture never was the point, not quite…

And so the last round before closing time
becomes a girl, almost, sitting next to you
down from that stage, her eyes almost blue
in the mighty tide of blackout with its
lengthening blue haze, staring almost
into to yours to lock and hold the empty place
you’ve carried through all these bars
for all these years, the tattered relic
of devotion to a blue, she-shaped door.

Thank God all you ever wanted and cared for
is just the thought of her as you drain your glass,
a blues ever ending where it never could
quite start, just another headstone in the row
grown back over twelve bars and bottles ago.
Already dead, if you will, having failed to live
any more or better now simply rounded like
the blues which travels song to song nowhere,
never quite allowing you to finish your drink & go.

Perfection is sweet like that, waving like
weeds in a forgotten graveyard on gray afternoons,
your name on a stone now covered by forest clutter,
dreaming of the saucy figure with the silver guitar
playing the song with such arch and plush tritones
meaty mitts of nothing powdering your bones.

All this only makes the next night’s blues
that richer, the next dive bar with its twelve
solitary drinkers nodding to a voice almost
the full shot of immortal proofless booze.
Not quite, but just enough to enoble
the old unfathomable heaven
with its angel riot here to expire
on the rim of every toppled shotglass
the blues loved and left that way,
walking with that certain

stumbling defiant sashay
out this last unquiet door

into an almost dawn quintessence,

the maker’s murderous blue roar.

September 2016

Submitted to Real Toads Play It Again Pastiche Challenge,
because the blues are almost everything


Filed under Alcoholism, All the Dumb Dudes, Art and Heart, Big Night Music, Blue, Entangled up in blue, Immrama, Infernos, Memoir, Music, Mystery, Netherworlds, Noir, The Dark, The Dead, Voyagers