Blackness and apocalypse
Playlist by Joshua Bennett
These poems are primarily meant to reflect my ongoing interest in how black writers have navigated the end of the world, the ends of worlds, cataclysms and shifts in the landscape. How over and against that utter lack of safety or security, they have dared to imagine a future. And what’s more, a global vision in which the present social hierarchies and arrangements do not carry the day. In the midst of storms, hurricanes, political upheaval and nuclear threats, these writers, and the tradition in which they work, assert an alternate, unflinchingly optimistic story of humankind. They dare us to dream of other ways that things could be, count that dreaming as praxis, and build with our most radical visions in mind. Every apocalypse is also a revelation, an opening, another chance. These poems are rooted in that long-standing, fundamental truth. They are preparation for the earth that is yet to come.
1. The beginning of the end of the world
Lucille Clifton
2. The Brown Menace, or Poem to the Survival of Roaches
Audre Lorde
3. On a New Year’s Eve
June Jordan
4. Middle Passage
Robert Hayden
5. Won’t Be But A Minute
Patricia Smith
6. To See the Earth Before the End of the World
Ed Roberson
maybe the morning the roaches
walked into the kitchen
bold with their bad selves
marching up out of the drains
not like soldiers        like priests
grim and patient in the sink
and when we ran the water
trying to drown them as if they were
soldiers        they seemed to bow their
sad heads        for us not at us
and march single file away

maybe then        the morning
we rose from our beds as always
listening for the bang at the end
of the world        maybe then
when we heard only the tiny tapping
and saw them dark and prayerful
in the kitchen        maybe then
when we watched them turn from us
faithless at last
and walk in a long line away
Call me
your deepest urge
toward survival
call me
and my brothers and sisters
in the sharp smell of your refusal
call me
roach and presumptuous
nightmare on your white pillow
your itch to destroy
the indestructible
part of yourself.

Call me
your own determination
in the most detestable shape
you can become
friend of your image
within me
I am you
in your most deeply cherished nightmare
scuttling through the painted cracks
you create to admit me
into your kitchens
into your fearful midnights
into your values at noon
in your most secret places
with hate
you learn to honor me
by imitation
as I alter—
through your greedy preoccupations
through your kitchen wars
and your poisonous refusal—
to survive.

To survive.
Survive.
Infinity doesn't interest me

not altogether
anymore

I crawl and kneel and grub about
I beg and listen for

what can go away
                                   (as easily as love)

or perish
like the children
running
hard on oneway streets/infinity
doesn't interest me

not anymore

not even
repetition your/my/eye-
lid or the colorings of sunrise
or all the sky excitement
added up

is not enough

to satisfy this lusting admiration that I feel
for
your brown arm before it
moves

MOVES
CHANGES UP

the temporary sacred
tales ago
first bikeride round the house
when you first saw a squat
opossum
carry babies on her back

opossum up
in the persimmon tree
you reeling toward
that natural
first
absurdity
with so much wonder still
it shakes your voice

                                      the temporary is the sacred
                                      takes me out

and even the stars and even the snow and even
the rain
do not amount to much unless these things submit to some disturbance
some derangement such
as when I yield myself/belonging
to your unmistaken
body

and let the powerful lock up the canyon/mountain
peaks the
hidden rivers/waterfalls the
deepdown minerals/the coalfields/goldfields
diamond mines close by the whoring ore
hot
at the center of the earth

spinning fast as numbers
I cannot imagine

let the world blot
obliterate remove so-
called
magnificence
so-called
almighty/fathomless and everlasting
treasures/
wealth
(whatever that may be)

it is this time
that matters

it is this history
I care about

the one we make together
awkward
inconsistent
as a lame cat on the loose
or quick as kids freed by the bell
or else as strictly
once
as only life must mean
a once upon a time

I have rejected propaganda teaching me
about the beautiful
the truly rare

(supposedly
the soft push of the ocean at the hushpoint of the shore
supposedly
the soft push of the ocean at the hushpoint of the shore
is beautiful
for instance)
but
the truly rare can stay out there

I have rejected that
abstraction that enormity
unless I see a dog walk on the beach/
a bird seize sandflies
or yourself
approach me
laughing out a sound to spoil
the pretty picture
make an uncontrolled
heartbeating memory
instead

I read the papers preaching on
that oil and oxygen
that redwoods and the evergreens
that trees the waters and the atmosphere
compile a final listing of the world in
short supply

but all alive and all the lives
persist perpetual
in jeopardy
persist
as scarce as every one of us
as difficult to find
or keep
as irreplaceable
as frail
as every one of us

and
as I watch your arm/your
brown arm
just before it moves

I know

all things are dear
that disappear

all things are dear
that disappear
I

Jesús, 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 the 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 hands, 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


       II

Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories,   
Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar;
have watched the artful mongos baiting traps   
of war wherein the victor and the vanquished

Were caught as prizes for our barracoons.   
Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity
and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah,   
Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us.

And there was one—King Anthracite we named him—
fetish face beneath French parasols
of brass and orange velvet, impudent mouth
whose cups were carven skulls of enemies:

He’d honor us with drum and feast and conjo   
and palm-oil-glistening wenches deft in love,   
and for tin crowns that shone with paste,   
red calico and German-silver trinkets

Would have the drums talk war and send   
his warriors to burn the sleeping villages   
and kill the sick and old and lead the young   
in coffles to our factories.

Twenty years a trader, twenty years,
for there was wealth aplenty to be harvested   
from those black fields, and I’d be trading still   
but for the fevers melting down my bones.


       III

Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,   
the dark ships move, the dark ships move,   
their bright ironical names
like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth;   
plough through thrashing glister toward   
fata morgana’s lucent melting shore,   
weave toward New World littorals that are   
mirage and myth and actual shore.

Voyage through death,
                               voyage whose chartings are unlove.

A charnel stench, effluvium of living death   
spreads outward from the hold,
where the living and the dead, the horribly dying,   
lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement.

       Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,   
       the corpse of mercy rots with him,   
       rats eat love’s rotten gelid eyes.

       But, oh, the living look at you
       with human eyes whose suffering accuses you,   
       whose hatred reaches through the swill of dark   
       to strike you like a leper’s claw.

       You cannot stare that hatred down
       or chain the fear that stalks the watches
       and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;   
       cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,   
       the timeless will.

               “But for the storm that flung up barriers   
               of wind and wave, The Amistad, señores,
               would have reached the port of Príncipe in two,   
               three days at most; but for the storm we should   
               have been prepared for what befell.   
               Swift as the puma’s leap it came. There was   
               that interval of moonless calm filled only   
               with the water’s and the rigging’s usual sounds,   
               then sudden movement, blows and snarling cries   
               and they had fallen on us with machete   
               and marlinspike. It was as though the very   
               air, the night itself were striking us.   
               Exhausted by the rigors of the storm,
               we were no match for them. Our men went down   
               before the murderous Africans. Our loyal   
               Celestino ran from below with gun   
               and lantern and I saw, before the cane-
               knife’s wounding flash, Cinquez,
               that surly brute who calls himself a prince,   
               directing, urging on the ghastly work.
               He hacked the poor mulatto down, and then   
               he turned on me. The decks were slippery
               when daylight finally came. It sickens me   
               to think of what I saw, of how these apes   
               threw overboard the butchered bodies of
               our men, true Christians all, like so much jetsam.   
               Enough, enough. The rest is quickly told:   
               Cinquez was forced to spare the two of us   
               you see to steer the ship to Africa,   
               and we like phantoms doomed to rove the sea   
               voyaged east by day and west by night,   
               deceiving them, hoping for rescue,   
               prisoners on our own vessel, till   
               at length we drifted to the shores of this   
               your land, America, where we were freed   
               from our unspeakable misery. Now we   
               demand, good sirs, the extradition of   
               Cinquez and his accomplices to La   
               Havana. And it distresses us to know   
               there are so many here who seem inclined   
               to justify the mutiny of these blacks.   
               We find it paradoxical indeed
               that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty   
               are rooted in the labor of your slaves
               should suffer the august John Quincy Adams   
               to speak with so much passion of the right   
               of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters   
               and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero’s   
               garland for Cinquez. I tell you that   
               we are determined to return to Cuba
               with our slaves and there see justice done. Cinquez—
               or let us say ‘the Prince’—Cinquez shall die.”

       The deep immortal human wish,   
       the timeless will:

               Cinquez its deathless primaveral image,   
               life that transfigures many lives.

       Voyage through death
                                     to life upon these shores.
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Tie Luther B to that cypress. He gon’ be all right.
That dog done been rained on before,
he done been here a day or two by hisself before,
and we sho’ can’t take him. Just leave him
some of that Alpo and plenty of water.
Bowls and bowls of water.
We gon’ be back home soon this thing pass over.
Luther B gon’ watch the place while we gone.
You heard the man—he said Go—and you know
white folks don’t warn us ’bout nothing unless
they scared too. We gon’ just wait this storm out.
Then we come on back home. Get our dog.
People are grabbing at the chance to see
the earth before the end of the world,
the world’s death piece by piece each longer than we.

Some endings of the world overlap our lived
time, skidding for generations
to the crash scene of species extinction
the five minutes it takes for the plane to fall,
the mile ago it takes to stop the train,
the small bay        to coast the liner into the ground,

the line of title to a nation    until the land dies,
the continent uninhabitable.
That very subtlety of time between

large and small
Media note        people chasing glaciers
in retreat up their valleys        and the speed...

watched ice was speed made invisible,
now—        its days and a few feet further away,
a subtle collapse of time between large

and our small human extinction.
If I have a table
at this event, mine bears an ice sculpture.

Of whatever loss it is    it last as long as ice
does until it disappears        into its polar white
and melts        and the ground beneath it, into vapor,

into air.    All that once chased us and we
chased to a balance chasing back, tooth for spear,
knife for claw,
                         locks us in this grip
          we just now see
                                        our own lives taken by
taking them out.          Hunting the bear,
we hunt the glacier with the changes come
                of that choice.
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