Poem for a Tuesday — “Passage” by Elizabeth Alexander

“Henry Porter wore good clothes for his journey,

the best his wife could make from leftover

cambric, shoes stolen from the master. They

bit his feet, but if he took them off he feared

he’d never get them on again. He needed

to look like a free man when he got there.

Still in a box in the jostling heat,

nostrils to a board pried to a vent,

(a peephole, too, he’d hoped, but there was only

black to see) there was nothing to do

but sleep and dream and weep. Sometime the dreams

were frantic, frantic loneliness an acid

in his heart. Freedom was near but un-

imaginable. Anxiety roiled inside

of him, a brew which corroded his stomach,

whose fumes clamped his lungs and his throat.

When the salt-pork and corn bread were finished

he dreamed of ice cream and eggs but the dreams

made him sick.  He soiled himself and each time

was ashamed.  He invented games tried to

remember everything his mother

ever told, every word he hadn’t

understood, every vegetable he’d ever

eaten (which was easy: kale, okra, corn,

carrots, beans, chard, yams, dandelion greens),

remember everyone’s name who had ever

been taken away.  The journey went that way.

When he got there, his suit was chalky

with his salt, and soiled, the shoes waxy with blood.

The air smelled of a surfeit of mackerel.

Too tired to weep, too tired to look through

the peephole and see what freedom looked like,

he waited for the man to whom he’d shipped

himself: Mister William Still, Undertaker,

Philadelphia.  He repeated the last

words he’d spoken to anyone: goodbye

wife Clothilde, daughter Eliza,

 best friend Luke.  Goodbye, everyone, goodbye.

When I can, I’ll come for you. I swear,

I’ll come for you.”

in Furious Flower, ed. Joanne V. Gabbin. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.

Elizabeth Alexander is a Black writer, poet, and educator. Born in Harlem and raised in Washington, DC, Alexander studied at Yale, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania. She is a gifted educator, who has taught at Haverford College, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Smith College. Her father served as the United States Secretary of the Army. Her mother was a distinguished professor of African American Women’s History. She was just a toddler when her parents took to the March on Washington in August 1963. In 2009, she recited her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Barack Obama’s first Presidential Inauguration.

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