Robert Hayden



                              Middle Passage


Jesus Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy:

      Sails flashing to the wind like weapons,
      sharks following the moans the fever and the dying;
      horror the corposant and compass rose.

Middle Passage:
            voyage through death
                        to life upon these shores.

      "10 April 1800–
      Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says
      their moaning is a prayer for death,
      ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves.
      Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter
      to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under."

Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann:

      Standing to America, bringing home
      black gold, black ivory; black seed.
            Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,
            of his bones New England pews are made,
            those are altar lights that were his eyes.


Jesus Saviour Pilot Me
Over Life's Tempestuous Sea

We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord,
safe passage to our vessels bringing
heathen souls unto Thy chastening.

Jesus Saviour

            "8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick
            with fear, but writing eases fear a little
            since still my eyes can see these words take shape
            upon the page& so I write, as one
            would turn to exorcism. 4 days scudding,
            but now the sea is calm again. Misfortune
            follows in our wake like sharks (our grinning
            tutelary gods). Which one of us
            has killed an albatross? A plague among
            our blacks–Ophthalmia: blindness–& we
            have jettisoned the blind to no avail.
            It spreads, the terrifying sickness spreads.
            Its claws have scratched sight from the Capt.'s eyes
            & there is blindness in the fo'c'sle
            & we must sail 3 weeks before we come
            to port."

                  What port awaits us, Davy Jones'
                  or home? I've heard of slavers drifting, drifting,
                  playthings of wind and storm and chance, their crews
                  gone blind, the jungle hatred
                  crawling up on deck.


Thou Who Walked On Galilee

            "Deponent further sayeth The Bella J
            left Guinea Coast
            with cargo of five hundred blacks and odd
            for the barracoons of Florida:

            "That there was hardly room ‘tween decks for half
            the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;
            that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh
            and sucked the blood;

            "That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest
            of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins;
            that there was one they called The Guinea Rose
            and they cast lots and fought to lie with her:

            "That when the Bo's'n piped all hand, the flames
            spreading from starboard already were beyond
            control, the negroes howling and their chains
            entangled with the flames:

            "That the burning blacks could not be reached,
            that the Crew abandoned ship,
            leaving their shrieking negresses behind,
            that the Captain perished drunken with the wenches:

            "Further Deponent sayeth not."

Pilot Oh Pilot Me


Robert Hayden, Collected Poems, Liveright Publishing, 1997.