I feel this poem needs a preamble, although I have to challenge myself all the time not to apologise for my poetry in advance – the urge is very strong!
This poem is quite a departure from my usual output of semi-autobiographical works (or at least, works written in my own voice, about things I see). I have always been clear that I do not write fiction, and I have been (guilty as charged) quite dismissive of various attempts by tutors to persuade me to try and write from another person’s perspective – in character – although this (as opposed to embarassing “confessional poetry”) is very in vogue in the poetry world at the moment. I remain committed to truth-telling, so this is an interesting challenge to my preconceived ideas of what that means.
Last week I went to see the brilliant, necessary, but deeply harrowing film 12 Years a Slave. I was fascinated by the role of the white women in the evolution of the violence portrayed. They were shown as still, corseted figures of great power and influence. They did not deliver the blows, but they were clearly instrumental in their administration. I wrote this poem as a monologue in the voice of one of them: the wife of a plantation and slave owner. It is not something she herself would be likely to speak, so much as an exploration of her subconscious – the fears, conflicts and beliefs that might lie behind and drive her actions.
If you can, it’s best read aloud in a southern US drawl…
[after 12 Years a Slave (film), directed by Steve McQueen]
When the cotton lay thick and heavy in the fields,
so much that the slightest breeze took it from us,
and we did not have enough hands to pick it –
instead, watched our efforts blow away in the wind –
a man came. Offered us a solution: labour
for less than the price of cattle, from over the ocean.
I heard a ship went down, filled with black men in chains.
I’ve never seen a ship: I’m told they creak;
break apart on rocks. It hardly matters:
there are so many, they keep on coming like swarms.
In the beginning we bought a few to help us.
It seemed like the answer to our prayers.
The first were lost souls: meek and obliging,
but we grew greedy. We wanted more
and more kept on coming.
They settled in: learnt the language.
Now they meet in the forest: whisper freedom.
We hear of white men murdered in their beds,
and I feel the plots setting all around me.
Out here, there is no-one to save us.
We weren’t always so hard: cared for them
like beasts of burden, that being what they are.
It benefits us that they are strong, and willing.
We only used the whip on occasion,
but some of the boys got a taste for blood:
fed on the rush of power like leeches. I hated it
but grew used to the screams, and more fearful:
saw the hatred veiled in their faces.
Sometimes the women fix me with those dark eyes:
are they more than we’re led to believe?
The underdog always rises up in the end,
in the books anyway. There’s always a revolution
and you know it will be bloody. Our time is coming
and no lashes will stop it, though we try our best
to keep them cowed and weakened.
I demand it in fact: want to see my children
grow up. It’s my job as a mother:
what God placed me on this earth to do.
We must make examples of those that show signs
of revolt: let them swing in plain view.