Text: A slave ship sinks in the Atlantic, 1749.
There must have been a great noise: the drumming and slap
o f limbs against wood, ankles fit slack in shackles.
Children, there must have been a trembling violence,
bodies once more roused from a lumber of days, drunk
from the odor of shit and stilled in middle dance.
And, yes, there were terrible voices, the holler
wresting itself out, shouts silencing what babies
would tell, silencing even the goodness of God.
Don't you know there was a joy? that revenge came down
upon the men who chained them, who chained and locked them,
who would not look at them closely, not in the eyes;
that revenge had come from the body's dark water
to claim them all, even those who rendered feeling,
who swallowed and swallowed, swallowed deeply, then died.
And there must have been a moaning song that the land
heard about the deep grief of ocean, coward sky,
the brashness of resisting winds. Quiet
moves us to the edge of land and we lay ourselves
on it to listen; or, we lay ourselves inside.
Aside from spirits, I was alone there,
and after I had cut the grass, put the mower back in the car,
I lingered at my grandparents' graves.
The sun settled while the air cooled itself off,
and dark trailed the oldest parts of the cemetery
in full skirts. As I heard her slowly approach,
I imagined a hand come through the ground
as if the ground were as weightless as water,
and the hand calmly closed itself at my ankle,
my Mama Emma asking, Stay, son
even though I could leave if I would
my Papa Willie said, Yes. Stay, son
I was soon going North
to college, I told them; I was excited. I talked
about Mom becoming saved, Dad retiring from the Army,
my sister and the boy she secretly loved, my brother and how mean
we were to each other without meaning to be,
my dead brother whose grave no one had visited much.
And I told them what I had not been wanting to tell them—
that I had not been called to preach.
I admitted I was feeling relieved, no longer worried
about ignoring an unmistakable voice,
daring then to live in defiance of a terrible holy command
to surrender and surrender again.
The dark stopped and nothing else moved,
not even the waters of the ear, not even the heart.
And when my grandparents finally spoke,
they spoke with voices I have not yet recognized,
reminded me to pray and to be good
to people and to come back and sit with them at dusk.
The dark moved on again, and clouds watched
me leave, the whole night smelling
suddenly of the saltwater roaring in my nose.
A story my grandfather used to love
to tell had to do with his own baptism.
The preacher walked him into the muddy Neuse River
and they stood in there for a moment,
both of them dressed in white, both of them light.
And as my grandfather, a boy, really,
folded his arms across his chest—the way
dead people sometimes do—the church members sang
Just As I Am. When the preacher embraced him,
and my grandfather began to fall
easily into deepness, a snake swam near enough
for them both to see. My grandfather threw
himself out of the preacher's arms, ran to land;
and the chuckling preacher called him back, for
he had seen many snakes in that river
and this serpent was not one to fear.
In my swimming class, I am chuckling at my fear
of snakes in the pool. I hate the term Dead Man's Float,
but trust the teacher when he says I will
later feel calm and forget what I am
doing. What I am doing is what I have tried
to learn twice before—how to breathe underwater,
how to trust that water entering my one good ear
will leave again, how to let water embrace
my body into descent. At the moment,
it is hardest to let my hips dance in that deep
space; the teacher has told us that men's trunks sink
our legs below the surface of water,
and this seems easily like sex. Yet,
the serpent waiting low in that water
is probably unconcerned with sin.
What is really making me feel naked in this class
is the presence of another black man.
... and they saw not their father's nakedness
They walk in backwards.
They cover Noah.
Ham tries to forget what he has seen.
He tries to forget
that his father has only a man's body
His father is no God
Ham tries to forget the bending, the scars, the whiting hair
Ham tries to forget the penis, its tender shape
He tries to forget the shoulders gone round, the dragging chest
To forget breath, the craven let breath
And Ham tries to forget a prophecy
of his own short life which is now shorter than before
because his own body sometimes bends,
Poems by Forrest Hamer:
TEN: An Anthology of Northern California Poets