For Dangerfield Newby, Freedman
This is for Dangerfield Newby, lying quiet amid the muskets
and white men in the fire house in Harper’s Ferry, waiting.
This is for Dangerfield Newby, and all those men whose families
worked some other farm, waiting to be sold, waiting for the carts
and whips to take them south. This is for Dangerfield Newby
who would not wait, who chose the gun and John Brown
and the town we know with its high vise of cliffs and beauty.
We do not know Dangerfield Newby.
So this is for him, who loved and hated and could no longer wait
and so chose the gun. For Dangerfield Newby, who was the first
man dragged from the fire house in 1859 and shot through the throat.
The volunteers beat his still body in the dust,
slipped their knives from sheaves at their waists
and sliced the offending ears from his broken body.
This is for the ears of Dangerfield Newby.
They had heard possibility – to lie again beside
a woman whose name we do not know,
a woman who could not choose.
This is for the ears of Dangerfield Newby
that heard an echo from those blue hills,
from the shallow whisperings of the two rivers.
Lying in the separate pockets of white men –
on two tables at the tavern –
even on display in the separate homes of white men –
the ears of Dangerfield Newby each heard a single word, freedom.
GOVERNOR BRADFORD WATCHES THE INDIANS FALL INTO LAMENTABLE CONDITION, 1633
In the swamp spring of Plymouth,
Essex, Narragansett Bay,
the Indians, dying on hard mats,
miss the rush of mackerel
into nets. The mackerel make
their way unhindered
and the Indians go hungry.
The pox loves hunger, seeks it
like the hunter, quiet
in the woods that no one
burned last year, too busy
were the Indians being fearful
to behold, their skin flaying
and cleaving by reason thereof
to the mats they lie on.
The pox is traded to the next
village and the next, the way
in the past the Wampanoag
traded corn for animal skins
with the Abenaki to the north,
so there is no warmth this winter
and the Indians lie down to die
like rotten sheep.
Which is how the Lord
cleared the land,
bleached it pure, the pox breaking
and mattering and running one
into another, seeking brethren
in the body of these lamentable
creatures – all of a gore blood –
who cry out to be taken,
at last, their final call to the earth.
Note: Quotations in the poem are from William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation.
Split This Rock has its origins in DC Poets Against the War, a group I founded as part of the international movement against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. After several years of powerful local organizing we began calling poets from around the country to DC to march together in the major national anti-war demonstrations. The response was tremendous. Poets clearly were moved to come to our nation’s capital and speak out together through the prophetic language of poetry.
I had always dreamed of an organizational home that would welcome both my poet self and my activist self. I was lucky to land in DC, where such a community has thrived for decades. As the wars dragged on and our country seemed to us to move further and further away from its founding principles of equality and social justice, in 2007 we decided that the time had come to take our organizing up a notch.
We spent a long time dreaming up the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival – its shape, its name, the timing, the hook, how we’d fund it, how we’d staff it, whether we could pull it off… But pull it off we did. On the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq in March 2008 hundreds of socially engaged poets gathered in DC for a transformative hybrid event: part festival, part conference, part celebration, part demonstration. It was such a smash success that we decided to incorporate and make the festival a regular part of the literary and activist landscape. We hope you’ll join us as we bring poetry into the center of public life, where it belongs! www.SplitThisRock.org
Sarah Browning is the coeditor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology and coordinator of the group of the same name, which has been active since the first national day of poetry against the war, February 12, 2003. She helped produce Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness in March 2008. Her first book of poems, Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, was published by The Word Works in 2007, and she hosts Sunday Kind of Love at Busboys and Poets DC. In 2005, Browning received a D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities Individual Artist Grant and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize.