Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 11 · no. 1 · October 2010
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Poetic Research Department

Statement of Poetic Research—"Phillis Wheatley's Word" by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers


Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
The Age of Phillis

The Transatlantic Progress of Sugar in the Eighteenth Century

I own I am shock'd at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves…
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?

"Pity for Poor Africans," William Cowper, 1788

oh
peerless
smell of cane
cloud on triangular
horizon whip trilling a red
aria molasses the smelling hull
& chained bones the practical sharks
trailing hoping for fresh bodies overboard

(dark/
dark/pale/
dark/pale/dark/
dark/exchange/fresh/
exchange/flesh/exchange/
fresh/blood/blood/blood/blood/
dark/dark/pale/dark/pale/dark/exchange
flesh/exchange/fresh/exchange/flesh/blood)

&
the sea
taste blessed rape
hollowed out burn & brand
some girls mostly boys this holy
trinity of godless dirty savages island
patois rum down a throat lump in some tea
the science of journey & the peerless smell of cane

I Cannot Recall Phillis Wheatley (Boston, Winter 1763)


Celestial Nine! propitious to my pray'r.
In vain my Eyes explore the wat'ry reign…

"Ocean" by Phillis Wheatley, c.1779

Yes, I shall be a good girl.
See? I am practicing my lessons—
today I am reading that Odysseus
sailed the ocean like me,

that Muses hold me in their arms—
they are ladies like my Ma.
Mistress Susanna turns her head when I ask,
when shall I see my Ma at last?

She says I am not bad if I cannot recall
how Ma would say cup or spoon or yam
in that other place.
She says, Ma shall understand.

She says, once I learn a word
I own it, even one from the Bible—
but do not forget how great God is.
He will scrub my dirty skin clean.

Over there—
is it such a long journey to get back?
I cannot recall how far I traveled,
but I am stronger now.

I wish to show Ma
that my teeth grew in and I am so big
and I promise—I promise—not to get
sick if I ride on the ship again.

Today snow came down,
though Ma does not have a word
for that at our house.
Someone outside is lying on the ground.

A sad soul has slipped and fallen on the ice—
that's what that crying means.

Blues for Harpsichord (Boston, Nearly Spring 1770)


… Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Crispus
Attucks, the unhappy Victims who fell in the bloody massacre
of the Monday evening preceeding!

Boston Post Boy, March 12, 1770

The air is charged with grace and wealth, the tune
of coins, a parlor box—some ladies' toy.
The music of the rich, a myth in nearly spring—
a tame, wet desert and men's bewigged dreams.
The wives, rouged, play weak games and sway
their panniers, bone-threaded waists—there's lace
in this calm scene, when outside, a few steps
away, the realness: stinking wharf; the ship
disgorging tea and African stuffing;
slick streets; and soon, the saucy boys' mad brawl
with outmanned, well-gunned Redcoats—Crispus will
not live to see black liberty: he's dead on this
wild night despite the harpsichord's blank noise.
A prelude, a fugue—a glittered affray.

The Art of Mastering #2 Phillis Wheatley (Boston, October 28, 1772)


Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel?
And why not every man?

Traditional Negro Spiritual

It didn't even happen (probably):
the courthouse—
Phillis climbing the steps,

her narrow back lifted, bone by bone,
her pretty face confronting
the combined authority, the terror

of eighteen white men gathered
to examine a slave girl's poetic
capabilities, to see if she could read—

and what of her humanity?
On that documented day,
most of those eighteen

were someplace else (maybe)—
across town at another meeting—
but we like our fairy tales established.

We'd like (alright, I would)
to think of Phillis as a Daniel in skirts,
armed with God's fickle intentions.

A graceful African prophet versus
the descendants of Puritans and slave traders.
Would she have spoken in careful tongues,

subduing those men, her personal
Holy Ghost filing down beasts' teeth?
Would she—

an innocent unaware of the world—
have pushed power aside
or forced it to the knees?

That day, we don't know. (It's unclear.)

Another day, one wonders
if she worked the word
as hard as I imagine.

If her Muses' songs were clean.
I'm sure she smiled too readily
to make pounds and shillings

to gain her freedom—
she quickly wrote those elegies
for grieving white ladies

but did she believe her way
was wrong yet strolled along?
Did she know that lies you tell

in your youth can't be smoothed over?
(I know
but I smiled, too—

anyway.
So I'd like to think survival.
I'd like her to reach forward

and show me how to write
the ironically righteous.
I'd like us both to live

until we are darkly wrinkled,
then lie down and die together,
then rise up and be our own gods.

Reader, laugh right now
at my curdling sentimentality—
Phillis and I understand.)

To Task Susanna Wheatley (Boston, February 1774)


I have lately met with a great trial in the death of my mistress,
let us imagine the loss of a Parent, Sister or Brother the tenderness
of all these were united, in her, —I was a poor little outcast &
stranger when she took me in…

"Letter from Phillis Wheatley to Obour Tanner," March 21, 1774

Phillis,
I must speak freely to you.
The work of woman

is to withstand.
To understand that death
is at hand always.

Blood first—
remember I said freely
then a bloodier travail

and if you are lucky
you'll leave that bed
with your life

and if you love the miracle,
your child.
Dead, death, dying—

in the beginning
and at the end.
I advise you never to marry

or bear children,
never to task
the breakable body

that has been chastised
with childbirth since eviction
from the Garden.

I ask you
to remain with me,
and help your mistress

end her days
with your witty, dark
face filling her gaze.

I know what you
cannot undertake.
Miss Susanna knows best.

Miss Susanna
will tell you
of gone babies:

John Born 21 December 1746

A Christmas gift,
like Our Lord who tore
his mother's soul to pieces.

The hopeful stroking
of the pearl-side shell,
the first seeking within,

then urgent quickness.
An ache to be rubbed
but not comforted.

Susanna Born 15 May 1748

What of some man's
weightless love?
Nothing to compare.

Nothing, but when
the third child
stops breathing as well—

my girl, the softness so real
upon a full breast—
for Mother there shall be

no rest, no sleep,
until Mother is buried—
maybe.

Here Lyes Sarah Who Died
11 May 1752
Aged 7 yrs 9 months and 18 days

A (Small)Pox on You (Boston 1776)


Who lives in this House &
what is the name of the Head

A different season, even though
the trees look the same—
rarely a long life.
Instead, the cheerful threat
of death's bad timing,
come to overtake
you like a fool quick in love.

How many Persons in this house
have had the Small Pox
both white and black

Once suffered always immune—
live or in the grave—but first,
sick Patriots, sick British,
sick Natives, sick slaves:
invasion by familiars
of New World kin.

How many belonging to this family
are now in the service

The city battling the enemy,
within and around, when any neighbor
can bring horror to the air
around your mouth—
take your husband, take your faith,
take your freedom, take your child,
take your wife, take your land—
take your eyes before it's done.

Is it Continental or Colonial
Is it by Sea or Land
If by sea
in what vessel

How many of each have died

Notes to Poems

"The Art of Mastering #2": This poem was written after I read Joanna Brooks's essay, "Our Phillis, Ourselves" in American Literature 82.1 (March 2010). In the essay, Brooks refers to a well-known article written by Henry Louis Gates Jr., "Writing, 'Race' and the Difference It Makes," published in Critical Inquiry 12 (Autumn 1985). In response to Gates's discussion of the now-famous "examination" of Phillis Wheatley by the eighteen "notable citizens" of Boston, Brooks states, "But there is in fact no known record of such an event…nowhere does it state that the signatories had examined her themselves."

"To Task": Italicized portions of this poem come from Boston City Records of Births and Deaths, located on the New England Historic Genealogical Society database.

"A (Small)pox on You": Italicized portions in the poems are from Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, Vol. 18 (1770-1777).


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