Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 12 · no. 1 · October 2011
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Poetic Research Department

Statement of Poetic Research


Sean Hill
A Home
Liberia Poems

Africa
"Africa from the beft (best) Authorities," Doolittle & c., published by Thomas & Andrew, Boston (ca. 1860).
Courtesy of the African Map Collection, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

AFRICA from the beſt AUTHORITIES

Where Africa's coast slips into oceans
And seas, its outline is lightly shadowed.
From there words bristle, rough stubble, no,

More like a halo radiating names—Thomas,
Lucia, Christopher, Stephens—saints
And people some thought important

Enough to warrant namesakes along
That shore. Researching the American
Colonization of Liberia

In the American Antiquarian
Society's reading room, looking
For western views of the continent

For context, I've been looking at old maps
Of Africa all day. This map keeps drawing
Me back with its claim of "AFRICA

From the beſt AUTHORITIES" and all
Those names—less divine light and more
Like a ruff, the fashionable starched collar

Of Queen Elizabeth's time, circumscribing
Africa. The hinterland, the interior, wasn't
Safe from the cartographer's hand—hardly

A blank spot on the continent—borders drawn,
Rivers traced and lakes laid down. Clumps of neat
Lollipop trees with shade under them represent

Forests while snaking rows of comma strokes
Denote mountains. The names of peoples and kingdoms
Crisscross the land (I'm loath to say like welts left

Across a slave's back by an overseer's whip because
It's too easy, though I see the damage done
By each hand) and words almost get lost—

MOROCCO, EGYPT, NUBIA, ABYSSINIA,
ZAHARA or the DESART, Tombuctoo,
N  E  G  R  O  L  A  N  D, DAHOMY, B E N I N,

Biafara, LOWER ETHIOPIA, A Savage People,
CAFFRARIA, Men Eaters, Gold Mines, Hottentots,
And places and peoples I don't know. Commodities

Line the coast past Sierra Leone: Grain Coaft, Ivory Coaft,
And on this map the cartographer wrote Gold Coast as Goad Coaft,
Next to its neighbor, Slave Coaft. All of this ringed by

Those names in English and Arabic and various Romance
Languages like a wedding band from an ill-intentioned man.


Schieffelin Bros. Exports & Imports

2010 [1]

My dusky ear hears a similarity between Schieffelin
and shuffling, the sound of steam engines
and many wings rustling when a murmuration
of starlings takes flight all together

like a coffle—that word came to English in the eighteenth century
from the Arabic word for "caravan" and even though it rhymes
with "awful" it seems a euphemistic way to describe stolen
manpower, muscle and motor skills mustered (in a coffle)

to usher in the prosperity of a nation.
In the nineteenth century, before starlings arrived,
the proliferation of steam engines and mechanization
precedes the rising wave of industrialization.

1851 [2]

Henry, the older Schieffelin brother, entered the business first
—moved commodities and goods from one place

to another, across waters and borders—helped
the American Colonization Society export American-born

negroes to Liberia. And for his efforts and money Henry
has a namesake town—Schieffelinville—in Liberia still on the maps.

1890 [3]

As the story goes, younger brother Eugene, a charter member
of the American Acclimatization Society, got the bright idea to import
every bird that left Shakespeare's quill to fill this land with their songs
and perhaps cultivate another great bard.

And as for Eugene's legacy, for plaguing this land
with starlings, his name has lately come up
in environmentalist circles—a newer movement
more concerned with impact than importing.

1957 [4]

Besides being prolific, starlings are proficient mimics
of other birds' songs. The sounds of starlings like a fog of hornets
or a stinging cloud of starlings, say, or swarm of negroes

like those dreaded Africanized bees that threaten
the Americas; you hear about them on the news
when there's no blood to lead and scant terrorists' chatter.

1816 [5]

The society saw the Americo-Africans,
good Christians, as a civilizing force
to make the "blighted dark continent" brighter.

1847 [6]

When independence came the Liberians based their constitution
on the founding fathers' frame—a likeness similar
to daguerreotypes like the ones Augustus Washington,
a black daguerreotypist, made in his Hartford, Connecticut studio.

1859 [7]

Washington mastered this mid-century art
and made a living and name for himself
producing framed likenesses "correct and beautiful."

Rich and poor sat for this working artist;—
he even photographed John Brown
before immigrating to Liberia in 1853.

Nineteenth Century [8]

The Schieffelin brothers, apropos
of their urges, made their fortunes
in shipping and pharmaceuticals
(exporting negroes and importing

starlings only hobbies) while all
around them the Second Great
Awakening and improvement
movements changed the face of the nation.

1872 [9]

Folks like Allen Yancy and Sandy Gannoway,
recently freed negroes from Milledgeville, Georgia,
and thereabouts decided that one morning they
would awaken in Philadelphia, Liberia

—just four degrees off the equator,
so no twilight before the sun broke
the darkness like a lightning bolt
or liberty in their new home.

2002 [10]

Though not necessarily in daguerreotypes,
in some art fish represent sex and birds freedom.

And who don't love catfish like Black men love
their cars: Firebirds and Thunderbirds, even Skylarks,

Impulses, and Pulsars—myths, birds, urges, and stars.

1849 [11]

This world we traverse
slowly wobbles under stars
on its axis like a top,

and polaris hangs marking always
celestial north dropping a plumb line
for us to follow making our movements

if not our positions true.

circa 450 BCE [12]

One of Zeno's paradoxes wrangles with only ever
making it halfway because of halving
all the way and never quite
getting there.

This brings to mind, as paradoxes will,
never being met halfway and not making half an effort
or maybe the effort's half-assed
or half-hearted and half-headed.

2011 [13]

I wonder how long
you have to claim a home
before you can comfortably feel
xenophobic.

1 While at the American Antiquarian Society I found out that Eugene Schieffelin and Henry M. Schieffelin were brothers.

2 Henry M. Schieffelin became a Vice President of the American Colonization Society.

3 Eugene Schieffelin released less than one hundred European Starlings in Central Park, introducing them to this continent. He did it again the following year, and now starlings, which are considered pests, number in the hundreds of millions.

4 A small number of Tanzanian honey bee queens that were imported to Brazil escaped and bred with European honey bees. The resulting hybrids are known as Africanized honey bees. These more aggressive bees are also known as killer bees.

5 Henry Clay, Richard Bland Lee, John Randolph, Daniel Webster, Bushrod Washington, George Washington's nephew, and other prominent political figures established the American Colonization Society.

6 Liberia declared its independence. The American Colonization Society, which maintained its connections with the nation and continued to sponsor emigration "expeditions" until 1904, welcomed Liberia's independence.

7 John Brown, a radical abolitionist, led an unsuccessful raid on an arms depot at Harpers Ferry.

8 Many reform movements started in the nineteenth century; among them were the Temperance Movement, the Abolitionist Movement, the Second Great Awakening, and the Women's Rights Movement.

9 One hundred and fifty folks from central Georgia emigrated to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society.

10 During a lecture at Rice University the South African artist, William Kentridge, responded to an audience question by explaining that the fish in his drawings represent sex.

11 Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Maryland and would return numerous times to aid some 70 people to escape slavery as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She used the North Star, Polaris, as a guide to travel under the cover of darkness.

12 Zeno, a student of Parmenides, thought up his paradoxes in order to support Parmenides's teachings.

13 I'm sitting here striking keys and wondering.


November 16, 1872 [1]

A baby stretches
out of sleep, dawn
unfurls slowly. The sun
rises, a sigh you're not
surprised by when you
hear it from your lips.
Dawn is different
everywhere. Allen
Yancy, Sandy Gannoway
and their families are in
Savannah this fall morning
boarding a boat
while their kinfolk
and old neighbors
wake to the rooster's crow
back in Milledgeville.

On the steamer San Salvador,
they're heading north—what
used to be freedom, heading
to New York, farther north
than they've ever gone,
and the Atlantic Ocean,
as far as they can see
on their right, nestles its
breath in their nostrils
till they can't smell
Georgia anymore.

1 December 1872 issue of the American Colonization Society newsletter, The African Repository, the Society reports of its fall expedition, "The barque 'Jasper,' which left New York on Thursday, November 21, bore a noble freight for Liberia. A company of one hundred and fifty persons left this country to better their condition, and to promote Christian civilization in Africa." These were emigrants from central Georgia.


A Freedman Speaks of His Fellow, or From Milledgeville to New Philadelphia, 1872

Sandy Gannoway gone away from here.
That old negro headed across the water
with his old lady, son, and daughter-

in-law. This his home near seventy-two years;
—now he going off to Liberia, Land
of the Free? But he been free since Sherman

came through trailing a crowd of us contraband,
us negroes now freedmen—free to stay or wander.
Guess this place more than Sandy could bear.

Thinks he'll realize the promise of freedom over there.
Sandy Gannoway gone away from here
leaving this freedom to us new freedmen

back here to work and fight, to make a stand or falter.
That new freedman's headed across the water
to go be free in what they call our fatherland.



 


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