SLAVES by Reginald Shepherd.

These are the years of the empty hands. And what
were those just past, swift with the flash of alloyed hulls
but carrying no cargo? Outside our lives, my mythical
America, dingy rollers fringed with soot deposit
cracked syringes and used condoms on beaches tinted gray
by previous waves, but when an hour waits just a moment,
everything begins again.

All of it is yours, the longed-for,
the mundane: men falling from a cloud-filled sky like flakes of snow
onto the ocean, your mother immersed in ordinary misery
and burning breakfast, still alive in the small tenement
kitchen. You understand I use the second person
only as a marker: beyond these sheltered bays are monsters,
and tarnished treasures of lost galleons
it’s death to bring to light.

The ships put out
and sink; before the final mast descends, the shadow
of a single sailor is burned across the sun, then wrapped
in strands of cirrus, his European skin a gift
to the black and unknown ocean floor. Of the slaves
thrown overboard to save the ship, no words
remain. What memorials the public beach becomes
in late October, scattered with Puerto Rican families
on muddied sand still lighter than a black man’s
pound of flesh: it abrades my skin.

I can’t touch
that perfected picture of myself, no white wave
will wash either hand clean. There is a wind
riding in on the tainted waves, and what it cannot
make whole it destroys. You would say that all along
I chose wrong, antonyms of my own face
lined up like buoys, but there is another shore
on the far side of that wind. Everything is there,
outside my unhealed history, outside my fears. I
can see it now, and every third or fourth wave is clear….

Copyright 1996, reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Category: Healing,