Black History Month, day 10
A highlight of last fall’s church schedule was the service in which the poet Everett Hoagland spoke. I don’t think I can describe the value of his poetry better than brother UU blogger Patrick Murfin did: “I commend the essential bravery of Hoagland’s work, which connects the intimate and personal now to the vastness of a historic and global outrage . . . . This is self-knowledge on an epic scale. All of us, regardless of our origins would do well to come to such grips with the long shadows of our own histories.” (Mailbox, UU World, June 2004)
Every time I hear a poet read aloud, I remember that that’s how poetry should be read. When I forget and try to read it silently, it loses at least one dimension, maybe more like two or three. So I urge you to read these poems aloud.
At East/West Beaches
The day night was born
we searched for time and sea-
smoothed fragments of blue, green,
brown bottles. Glass
cleared of gloss
made of man-
from rock, made
from cosmic dust. We
fringed the lips of under-
tow with footprints the waves
redeemed from the firm, wet
shore. We gathered and gave each other
milk white moonstones, aeons
old obsidian, pebbles trans-
lucent as sucked rock
candy and rolled up our jeans in the raw
salty mist. The sun sank into
a violet-lipped quahog, and grit-edged
night opened like a mussel. Under
lacquered, pearly black
light of moonrise we crossed
over a sandbar
by duned scrub
beach rose. The night day
was born we turned
around and found
“necessary and inevitable
like the ‘inevitable’ slave past
through consciousness like the present”
—Augustino Neto, “The Path of the Stars”
Gorée ten miles off shore beckons
from the western horizon like the landscape
of the troubled dream and we sleepwalk to the ferry.
Twenty thousand-thousand gone through the Gorée trade alone
we are told.
This is a Catholic isle off a Moslem land.
This the church where truth was chained.
Here Jesus died and rose again.
The beads we say are knots of blood.
Here they force-fed us after the trek in chains.
Here men were sold by size, nubile women penned
and prized for comeliness. Mulattoes conceived here,
and their mothers, were boated back to the main-
land to buffer tides of rage. Here children’s
chains are sold as souvenirs; they anchor history
and the mind. Here they took, selected the best;
the rest: lame, old, small and sick were helped
The writing is on the stockade walls: poster sized
revolutionary rhetoric, Pan-African credos, race
pride logos, reminders, challenges and warnings
written in black by the descendants
of the survivors of the dried blood red walls
of the pastel colonial buildings’
We’ve had to come all the way
back to see poetry kill people, blind them,
cause them to cough blood and be crippled
in a French provincial palace of mind,
with a court, an overmonied ten percent
of the population, prospering lords and ladies,
fronting masks. Eighty percent of each dollar spent
on the slave factory island, on a ROOTS tee shirt
goes to France. “See Your Roots” cotton
shirts off bony backs are hawked by hungry hustlers
inside the barracoon’s walls. Bloods at its
doors trade cowry shells for your money or
urge on you a brand new djudju bag—
for fifty Central African francs.
At sunset on Gorée Island, where scavenging
brown hawks wheel above the huge metal cross
atop the island’s highest point, the volcano
sleeps silent as the broken cannon pointed there
over the Middle Passage. . . .
down a long dark corridor a doorless doorway
to the past and future opens
to the surf’s wash and soft thud on the black
boulders. The blue-eyed horizon of this eastern
shore . . .
You are your shadow silhouetted in the rectangular
frame that is the grave of time, where so much went
underground. You had to, had to, you
had to come all the way back
to the rock fortress, to the slave pens,
on your hands and knees and crawl into
the stone oven of a cell
where the African rebels’ yells and defiance were kept
in solitary. Compressed by silence and circumstance
to diamond-hard blues. Completely black
inside the cell alone, one sees and hears things
clearly in the deep darkness. Overhead are heard
the voices of African-American tourists
calling their mates to, “Come look at this
Tyree. Come see this Dee. . . .” One hears a sea
of twenty thousand thousand voices at once
but also this from the shadows that always crowd
your view-finder, even in the dark:
“Do you tan? The native women are
charming. Does he take MasterCard? How
can they be so resigned? Gee, Gorée is neat fun!”
Inside the cowry shell you hold to your ear
you hear your name and heartbeat;
you finger the humming walls of the
cubicle and chip the tactile darkness
for a keepsake to put in your
djudju bag: ancient black lava rock.
You crawl out into the light
of the setting sun, face the western horizon
and, stripping as you go, hanging your watch
and jeans, western shirt and shoes on your white
shadow, you wade into
the east shore of the Middle Passage—
the hyphen between African
the surf hisses and steams off you
like water around white hot iron.
You walk out farther, level with your
heart. Farther, until the edge of life
is just over your head. You hold your
breath under water, open your eyes, clench
your fists and let the bellow bubble out
But you bound off the sand and obsidian
bottom and beat your breath back to the surface. . . .
As we board the ferry back to Dakar
the ghosts of twenty million swarm the wharf;
waifs with open palms and eyes closed by
disease and blindness, with ringworm in their
rusty dreadlocks, beg
for fifty Central African francs.
The Paris of Africa.
At sunset, the sea around Gorée is red;
it recedes revealing twenty thousand-
thousand gone and western rigs drilling
offshore for new black gold.
Later, alone in the bush, squatting
at the base of an ashy baobab, you contemplate
it all: your blue jeans,
the same old cotton, under
the same old sun,
the same old so-called “communes,”
the same old mules,
the same gaunt shadows lengthening
in the light. And how
smells the same, looks the same, how
poverty personified is always full
of the same self
hate and hospitality.
You look at, listen to
the little whirlwinds, dust devils
swirling on the dry red road
and think of goopher,
think of vévé.
You take a twig and score
your name under a poem
you are able to read in the deep
We are dust.
Rock is the placenta of time.
But rock can be shattered.
You cannot break dust;
it defies the hammer.
Chisels cannot carve up-
on it. Its stuff will not
make good statues of your heroes.
Heroes are made of it. Blown up?
Explosives never destroy it.
It cannot be slung or thrown.
but it can kill you.
“East/West Beaches” and “Gorée” are two in a sequence called “Homecoming,” which you can read here, where there is also a link to his books. You can hear the man himself read here: