Poem of the Week | March 31, 2014

This week we’ve dug up a poem by Rita Dove. We published “David Walker (1785-1830)” in our Spring 1979 issue, 2.2. U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995, Dove is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Thomas and Beulah, winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, and most recently, Sonata Mulattica, a poetic treatise on the life of 19th-century violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower. Other book publications include short stories, essays, the novel Through the Ivory Gate, the drama The Darker Face of the Earth and, as its sole editor, The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry. In 1998 the Boston Symphony debuted her song cycle “Seven for Luck”, with music by John Williams, under the composer’s baton. Among Dove’s numerous honors are the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton and the National Medal of Arts from President Obama, making her the only poet with both presidential medals to her credit. Rita Dove is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
 
Author’s note:

This early poem was part of a group of poems based on slave narratives which formed a section in my first book, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), and appeared in The Missouri Review a year earlier. 1979 seems like an eternity ago, but I remember the moment I first read David Walker’s Appeal and thought: Finally! Someone who dared to shout his outrage! You see, most of the slave narratives were edited by or dictated to Abolitionists, who then used them as testimony to the cause. I had been struck by the contrast between the extreme brutality of the experiences and the calm, almost detached, tone of the author’s delivery; part of the inspiration for my poems was grounded in a compulsion to capture this eerie and deliberate projection of objectivity.
 
And then came David Walker. A free Negro who would not be polite, who could read and write and was therefore not obliged to filter his emotions through the transcriptions from well-meaning but politically motivated Abolitionists — he could write his own appeal, arrange for its printing and dissemination. In order to convey a sense of the agitation that propelled his articulate treatise, the poem’s narrative is constantly being interrupted — by observations, by Walker’s own thoughts. His rage and anguish is palpable in his prose; and in my poem, I strive to replicate, syllable by syllable, the deep measure of his emotional turmoil.

 

David Walker (1785–1830)

Free to travel, he still couldn’t be shown how lucky
he was: They strip and beat and drag us about
like rattlesnakes. Home on Brattle Street, he took in the sign
on the door of the slop shop. All day at the counter–
white caps, ale-stained pea coats. compass needles,
eloquent as tuning forks, shivered, pointing north.
Evenings, the ceiling fan sputtered like a second pulse.
Oh Heaven! I am full!! I can hardly move my pen!!

 

On the faith of an eye-wink, pamphlets were stuffed
into trouser pockets. Pamphlets transported
in the coat linings of itinerant seamen, jackets
ringwormed with salt traded drunkenly to pursers
in the Carolinas, pamphlets ripped out, read aloud:
Men of colour, who are also of sense.
Outrage. Incredulity. Uproar in state legislatures.

 

We are the most wretched, degraded and abject set
of beings that ever lived since the world began.
The jewelled canaries in the lecture halls tittered,
pressed his dark hand between their gloves.
Every half-step was no step at all.
Every morning, the man on the corner strung a fresh
bunch of boots from his shoulders. “I’m happy!” he said.
“I never want to live any better or happier than
when I can get a-plenty of boots and shoes to clean!”

 

A second edition. A third.
The abolitionist press is perfectly appalled.
Humanity, kindness and the fear of the Lord
does not consist in protecting devils. A month–
his person (is that all?) found face-down
in the doorway at Brattle Street,
his frame slighter than friends remembered.

 
“David Walker (1785–1830)” from The Yellow House on the Corner, Carnegie Mellon University Press, Pittsburgh, PA. © 1980 by Rita Dove. Originally published in The Missouri Review, Vol. 2, Nos. 2 & 3, Spring 1979. © 1979 by Rita Dove. Reprinted by permission of the author.
 

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