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.