Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rita Dove: David Walker, 1785-1830


Free to travel, he still couldn't be shown how lucky
he was. They strip and drag and beat us about
like rattlesnakes. Home on Brattle Street, he took in the sign
on the door of the slop shop. All day at the counter--
white caps, ale-stained pea coats. compass: needles
eloquent as tuning forks, shivered, pointing north.
Evenings, the ceiling fan sputtered, like a second pulse.
Oh Heaven! I am full!! I can hardly move my pen!

On the faith of an eye-wink, pamphlets were stuffed
into trouser pockets. pamphlets were transported
in the coat-linings of itinerant seamen, jackets
ringwormed with salt traded drunkenly to pursers
in the Carolinas, pamphlets ripped out, read aloud:
Men of color, who are also of sense.
Outrage. Incredulity. Uproar in state legislatures.

We are the most wretched, degraded, and abject set
of beings that ever lived since the world began.
The jewelled canaries in the lecture hall tittered
pressed his dark hand between their gloves.
Every half-step was no step at all.
Every morning, the man on the corner strung a fresh
bunch of boots from his shoulders. "I'm happy!" he said.
"I never want to live any better or happier than
when I can get a-plenty of boots and shoes to clean!"

In this poem, Rita Dove writes about a somewhat less-than-famous (but historically well-known) abolitionist named David Walker. Here are some basics to help with the poem:

Mr. Walker was "free to walk" because he was born free to a free mother and a slave father.
He travelled, gradually moving to Boston and opening a used clothing store that catered to black sailors.
The sailors smuggled his abolitionist pamphlets to parts of the South--the most famous of these including an appeal to violent revolution. These were discovered, and as you see in the poem, uproar ensued. Many black sailors were then forbidden to leave their ship when berthed in the Port of Charleston or similar. The italicized parts are of course excerpts from that pamphlet.

He also was on the abolitionist's speaker's circuit. The jewelled canaries refers to the audience. Both men and women wore gloves in evening entertainments (of which improving lectures was one such, just as History Channel is today).

I actually did not intend this as part of the Lincoln series. The poem has been reminding me of itself prior to that, but I could not find my copy. The verse that was "sticking" in my mind was:

Every half-step was no step at all.

for other reasons.

Yet these are the half-steps I find here:
1. David Walker's freedom did not free him from being concerned with the slavery of his race. Their status affected him too.
2. Writing about abolition is not the same as accomplishing it.
3. The compass might have been better help than a pamphlet to a slave that can't read.
4. The pamphlets never made it anyway.
5. The more adamant he became, the less his lecture circuit understood him-was that a nervous titter?
6. The glove still separates human hands. The glove on one shows a status that the not-gloved don't share.
7. The man on the corner is free and happy. Or is he free? What horizon does he have?

Anyway, are there more? One thing I did not explore is the quotes. Also, their seem to be a lot of circles in this poem, and I don't know why: fan movement, ringworms of salt, compasses . . .
Whatever you see is well worth sharing.
And another question: what do you think Rita Dove is saying about Walker? I don't think she fully admires him, but I can't quite make up my mind.
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The Bug said...

I think that first sentence shows her opinion of him - if I'm reading it correctly, it sounds like she thinks he doesn't appreciate how good he has it.

It seems like in every movement there are people who don't agree with each other's methods - perhaps she thought he didn't do enough - only half-steps.

Interesting poem!

Ann T. said...

Dear The Bug,
Actually that fits. The man at the end of the poem seems to have happiness worked out--for a nice contrast.

But maybe just dropping the slave question would have been wrong too? Maybe we go from one half-step to the opposite. Hmmm.

Thanks for a great comment. Wow.
Or maybe it's another circle, from one to the next. Amazing!

Ann T.