Wednesday, June 10, 2009

for phillis wheatley (1)

for phillis wheatley
topsy black as cane…
that slaving ship which brought u to these shores
gave up its name that u might make it yrs --
idyllic country lass whom god adores!

for never did u know the kind of toil
yr kith & kin endured; the lash, the moil.
u furrowed rows in fields of verse, not soil.

heroic like yr couplets, so u snared
the favor of yr mistress who declared
yr prodigy & u were blithely spared,

unlike yr fellow slaves, the menial.
was it her tender heart? were u so genial?
what made her mortal sin seem venial?

what made her let a topsy, black as cain,
inspire a darkly moorish gift; retain
that heady, musty breath & entertain

with couplets closed or oft enjambed;
or four-line stanzas deftly crammed
with metered feet & smartly epigrammed?

A lofty soul that cleaved & split in twain,
& filled two bodies may perhaps explain
the spirit bond between u on this plane.

for spirit surely brought u to this land,
& taught yr simple heart to understand
the ways of god inscrutable to man.

& afric’s muse did not forgetful prove
but birthed yr book of poetry to move
aside, displace the chattel’s pain with love.

© Joseph McNair;2009


  1. Black women have led the way in literary pursuits, being first to publish a book, first to be U.S. poet laureates. Wheatley foreshadows Rita Dove whom I hope you haven't forgotten in this collection. Are those stanzas triplets. You are showing off your skills

  2. the ways of god inscrutable to man...for me this says it all. Often finding myself scratching my head in disbelief at the how imbalanced the scales are. For Af-American, for women, for black women, for dark women, for tall women, for left handed women...what's the point? But still acknowledging the short distance between where we started and how we ended up in the white house. I guess God likes dramatic endings.