by Naomi Long Madgett (a contemporary
I hardly remember my mother's face now,
But I still feel
At my bosom a chill'd wind
Stirring strange longings for the sturdy back
I used to lean against for warmth and comfort
when I had grown too tall to ride.
And I am blinded by
The glint of sunlight
Striking golden fire from the flint
Of seafoamed rocks below me
On some island not too far from home.
After that, the only light I saw
Was a few wayward chinks of day
That somehow slanted into the airless tomb
Where chains confined me motionless to a dank wall.
Then the sun died and time went out completely.
In that new putrid helltrap of the dead
And dying, the stench
Of vomit, sweat, and feces
Mingled with the queasy motion
Of the ship until my senses failed me. . . .
I do not know how many weeks of months
I neither thought nor felt, but I awoke
One night--or day, perhaps--
Revived by consciousness of sound.
The pounding of the waves against the shipside
And made believe its rhythm
Was the speech of tribal drums
Summoning in acute need the spirit
Of my ancestors. I dreamed I saw
Their carven images arrayed
In ceremonial austerity. I thought I heard
Their voices thundering an answer
To my supplication: "Hold fast,
Sur/vive sur/vive sur/vive!"
Once more the sunlight came, but not the same
As I remembered it.
Now it sat silver-cold
Upon the indifferent New England coast.
Still It was good to see the sun at all.
And it was something
To find myself the bright dark mascot
Of a blind but well-intentioned host--
A toy, a curiosity, a child
Taking delight in anyone's attention
After so long a death.
As I grew older, it was not enough.
The native lifesong once against burst free,
Spilled over sands of my acquired rituals--
Urged me to match the tribal rhythms
That had so long sustained me, that must
sustain me still. I learned to sing
A dual song:
My fathers will forgive me if I lie
For they instructed me to live, not die.
"Grief cannot compensate for what is lost,"
They told me. "Win, and never mind the cost.
Show to the world the face the world would see:
Be slave, be pet, concealed your Self--but be."
Lurking behind the docile Christian lamb,
Unconquered lioness asserts: "I am!"
Click here to return to Wheatley Biography.