- · vol. 14 · no. 2.5 · February 2014

Poetic Research Department

Early America, Poetically Speaking
Selections from a Panel at the 2013 Society of Early Americanists conference

Panel created, chaired, and introduced by Wendy Raphael Roberts

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
(Senegambia region, West Africa, Spring 1761)
"Now in regard to your purchasing Slaves, you'll Observe to get as few Girl
Slaves as Possible & as many Prime Boys as you can after your Completely Slaved…"
Letter from Timothy Fitch, owner of the Brig Phillis to
Peter Gwinn, Ship's Captain, November 8, 1760


You have command of my Brig. Grave
the bottom of the ship to keep water at bay.

Don't spend long in Senegal. Sleep light.
Watch the Negroes. Don't let them embrace you.

Captain Day almost was cut off by his slaves.
They killed a man before the rising was laid to rest.

Catch the first sweet wind to Sierra Leone.
Children are worthless. Women not much more—

Men. Buy men. Don't close your eyes for long.
For the cargo: rice, palm oil, water, peas.

Sundry goods for the sailors: white flour,
onions, barrels of rum. Fortune's loss

if your cargo should die. (If the skin
is kissed by mange anoint with brimstone.)

I need not tell you to savor
profit more than a welcome meal.

Your privileges are slaves and my due respect.
I have friends ribboned here and across the water:

Philadelphia, St. Croix, Jamaica, Cape Fear.
I will take nothing less than silver or gold.

Please do not forget:
watch carefully over your Negroes.

Your friend and owner,
Timothy Fitch

P.S. You must leave no debts behind.

Factory: Gorée
(House of Slaves, Gorée Island, Senegal c. 1780)

[keep the men from muttering among themselves]

parsing the air's dying scent      the water      arms clutching

at mirthful spirit       back to this      bereft lexicon

dante's castle on the rocky isle

captured bodies twirled around the obscene

& what cannot be released is that loud kindred laugh

humanity split along colonial charms      [virgin girls

in one cell      do what you wish]      double back to naming

gris-gris town-crying in hell      place your hands on the bone

maps of fifteen million      or so [women with fallen breasts in another]

trapped by a century's enlightened whims

forgive these men of three centuries ago      according

to the tenets of baptized slave ships      forgive      forgive

or do not      [no children      no children      unless that is your taste]

"Stowage of the British Slave Ship 'Brookes' Under the Regulated Slave Trade, Act of 1788"
after a propaganda illustration published as a Broadside by the
The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade,
founded in London, England

Closer: the stinky aria.
The bodies' relentless

outlines on either side,
above and below.

At some distance, the appearance
of Kente's intricate bands—

or, a crude version of what
a village potter might throw.

I dream of breath,
the stealing from

pretty faces, the smoothness
of the best chocolate.

A body is some body. (I know that.)
And theft?

The hoping for deaths
of Fula. Wolof.

Mandinka. Igbo.
My Maker up there—

please, make the one
next to me die.

Give me a teaspoon more of air.
I don't care now,

and when I beg You, please forgive
my rate of crossing over.

The brown eyes I've closed so I might live.
That tweakable, selfish nose.


Joseph Mills

Because owning made more sense
than renting, the Moravians debated
whether to buy Johann Samuel,
the fifteen year old boy,
they were leasing from a farmer
to work in their stockyards.
And then they did as they did
with most difficult decisions,
leaving it up to God by casting lots.
They put in three slips of paper—
Yes, No, and a blank one
(which meant more time was needed)—
then pulled one out. So, in 1765,
as they established a communal society
based on a "unity of brotherhood,"
they asked whether the church,
which had come to America,
in part, to escape persecution,
should become a slave holder.

"The answer came in the affirmative."


Alonso de Escobedo
La Florida
Translation by Thomas Hallock

The number (copia) of fish is so great,
the Indians take with their skill,
that it comes to me with ease
to praise them for their efforts.
It is one of the best things I have seen
to show a proper instrument against vile vice,
how they occupy themselves in fishing, for they
choose not to atone for idleness upon their death.

The ponentinos have another method,
where they grasp the net in each hand,
taking in their catch with a continual motion,
trawling through the salty, brackish flats.
as they wander this way like pilgrims,
the fish cannot escape because
of the dry spot in the narrow gate
they have built in the shallow pools.

In the afternoons the generous fishermen
share their catch amongst the poor.
In so doing, none of them are cowardly,
none of them act misers to the poor.
The beloved nobleman burns with a flame
that rescues and redeems those in need,
because he feels the hunger of those afar,
and the suffering of another is his own.

It is as they had objects of faith,
these lost souls would then be found,
but because the vile devil awaits them,
they will find themselves nestled in eternal fire.
Were they to convert to the Roman faith
the wages of the sin they have committed
would be absolved by true penance,
and their souls cleansed from sorrow.

It is so that these traitorous infidels
who have been kept in shadowy darkness,
with the delight that my soul adores,
may be brought to the light of justice.
Can a town that treasures idolatry,
and that is always lined up for war,
in the sovereign God find solace?
With baptism and the Christian faith: Yes.

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