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.”