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S. Donovan Mullaney

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Inside Phillis Wheatley
by S. Donovan Mullaney

Thursday, December 14, 2006
Not rated by the Author.
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           >> View all 27

Students, to you 'tis given to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the ethereal space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
—Phillis Wheatley, from an address given at
the University of Cambridge in New England (Harvard)

Her body sails unwilling, away.
The child leaks tears but holds
the creation stories of wizened whispers
from mother to mothers,
and the trophies of fathers who
strike
faster than cheetahs, slyer than lions.
She keeps her memories from joining
the ocean.
The Atlantic will devour even this small victory,
deposit her like beach-wood on an opposing shore.

In her new city
she wakes to see every one of her body’s
remaining sunrises, bones brittle cold swords inside,
sheathed
against winter in New England homespun (so much less free
than Senegal sun on skin.)
She rises every morning
to scrub the oak floor of Wheatley, the man with a paper
that says that he owns her.
On leathered, time-worn knees she learns the faith
of white men. The goodwives scoff
and gaze down their whalebone noses,
calling her a crow
among finches.

Phillis’ hands become tired autumn leaves,
backs pitted and trembling,
calluses whiter than her bill of sale,
Even when there's nothing there, her hands
wrap themselves round a quill
to release the colors inside her:

Walnut-colored cross around a neck.
Sweat as yellow as the Saviour's.
Blood as crimson.
Iron gray musket balls and black blankness
of sky over 1776 Boston, the chiaroscuro of stars;
Flush on the pale cheeks of Harvard,
that this Negress dares her own Pentecost.
White teeth snap in narrow, slack-lipped smiles:

Freewoman, you may testify here
but our smiles are not for you;
our patronage not for your art.
Freewoman, you will die younger than your Savior.
Our children will cut their teeth on you,
a midnight cloth shall be drawn over you,
and granite will bury you.

The color of Wheatley finally admitting
his paper never was more than a lie.
How a body rises,
its gospel sets a fire
on tongues of the crazy saints
who come after, raising one mighty Nation
built by a hundred thousand bitter-black-coffee hands,
America sees the coming
of Frederick’s wise Kingdom,
Harriet’s underground Kingdom,
Abraham’s free Kingdom,
Rosa’s exhausted and defiant Kingdom,
Gwendolyn’s cool Kingdom,
Maya’s uncaged Kingdom,
Alice’s garden Kingdom,
Langston’s drama Kingdom,
Oprah’s TV Kingdom.
Nina and Billie and Aretha and endless black and white voices
this Kingdom’s Choir.
Velvet Davis jazz the horns of this Kingdom—
crowing for the kings crowned in Selma and Washington, D.C.

and for the first First poet
who would give her name and her words
to students in a brick-faced, narrow-eyed tower
at a public land-grant university.

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Reviewed by Aberjhani 1/27/2007
Enjoyed this profound poetic exposition on the sometimes cruel ironies of history and race in the face of creative spiritual intelligence destined to perpetuate and expand not only itself but the sociopolitical environment that spawns it. The poet's recognition, appropriation, and exhultation of a powerful cultural legacy is both remarkable and admirable.

Aberjhani
Reviewed by Shawn Field 1/3/2007
This gospel here, this striking gospel you have written & posted here, is pure fire from the roots of the human condition. Most impressive piece.
Reviewed by Sage Sweetwater 12/18/2006
This one really leaves a mark. Although it was centuries ago when a slave sale was recorded in Jamestown, Virginia, modern-day slavery exists. Some of the bill of sales or a land deed are still being found in Bibles which is a good thing to relatives to be able to at least place a name and reconstruct the family tree, as the colonial masters renamed the slaves as to what part of the country they came from such as the Congo or Angola. When you hear how far we have come in some matters, especially of social prejudices, we haven't come very far at all of the acceptance of others; three names, Rosa Parks, Rodney King, and Matthew Shephard. Out of it all comes spirituals, the foundations for all types of music. Out of spirituals came gospel, out of gospel came blues, out of blues came jazz, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, dreadlocks, and somewhere came out of it Phillis Wheatley. I truly enjoyed this piece, Shea...Blessed Be.

Warmly,

Sage
Reviewed by Brett Moore 12/14/2006
Amazing tribute to Wheatley. Very engaging and touching.

Brett
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