Love Juggles Anvils

From The Art of Blacksmithing by Alex W. Bealer

In commemoration of Juneteenth (June 19), here is a moving poem of the slave experience by black poet laureate Marilyn Nelson:

A Suite for Temperance

Temperance Still
“molata” (1/2 Narragansett,
1/2 African)
b. 1706
i. x her mark
Jan. 13, 1726 she signed
an agreement
to be sold for life
to Richard Lord
What, in the movings overhead at night,
in the circle of the Four Directions,
in the bedrock sequence of the seasons,
made our eyes meet with this forever love?
Whose dream envisioned our togethering?
We might have lived and died without knowing
the gaze that melded two fates into one.
What would living have meant, without our pledge?
We might still be as distant as children
in different worlds, longing up toward the stars
for the other half who will make them whole.
What if my mother’s tribe had won the war?
What if our fathers had not been enslaved?
If they had died in the nightmare voyage?
What if Africa hadn’t been plundered,
or this land seized? Would our eyes have met?
I might not have looked up from planting corn
and seen the shy smile on your handsome face.
Now this white man says we may marry, if
he owns me and any children we have.
He’s happy to allow our happiness,
he says, but life’s a business of profit and loss.
“Oxford,” he says, “this girl shall be thy wife,
and my slave.” I love you. I make my mark.
ii. slave marriage
Jan. 21, 1726
marriage of Temperance
and Oxford
“negro servant” of
Richard Lord
I can’t say I do take her for my wife,
to have and to hold. But I do accept
with thanksgiving this heaven-sent gift
of a partner and sharer of despair.
How can I call an owned woman my wife,
knowing my children born to her are his?
In sickness and health, richer or poorer,
when he whistles she must run like a dog.
But I will take her to the airless room
in the attic where I sleep, and our breaths
will blend in the air over my pallet
until we jump to work in the pre-dawn.
I will hold her warm sobbing in my arms,
touch her tenderly with work-hardened hands.
I will hear her peoples’ drums in her heart,
and with her make people for the future
Loneliness has been an anvil in my chest,
almost as heavy as being enslaved.
But love juggles anvils. Love makes us free.
Before, I didn’t know I was not whole
was only one half, and she the other.
No longer alone, I’ve become a we.
Shoulder to shoulder, we shall face down fate,
blessed and cursed by the trickster Ancestors.
iii. faith, hope, love
1731: her
attempted lawsuit in
New London County Court
to recoup 60 pounds back
wages failed because
of gender, race,
and social status of husband
We’d planned for Grace to help me birth the child,
but Abiah came so sudden: one quick push,
and Mistress caught her in her petticoat.
She laid her, swaddled in it, in my arms.
She opened the door, said “Oxford.” He came in
and bowed to her, then turned his eyes to me
with the same joy promise that bound us at the start:
faith in the future, in a better tomorrow.
Three children later, now Judge Lord insists
my X on that paper made me a slave
for life, not just a servant for five years.
He says all of the gentlemen in the room
that day clearly explained to me that he
would own me, and those born to me, until death.
He says everyone thought I understood.
He says our board and keep are my wages.
He says I should be grateful: now I’m churched.
Behind my eyes a red storm cloud rumbles.
“Church.” Always praying about “faith, hope, love.”
Truth is, they believe in the opposite.
I think their suffering Jesus would agree
praying don’t even make you halfways good.
Truth is, they don’t know who they’re praying
to gives me strength to believe in tomorrow.
iv. sorrow food
I eat only sorrow food now.
—Bessie Head
Aug. 27, 1735
bill of sale: Oxford,
Temperance, and
infant Joel, to John
Bulkley of Colchester
for 180 pounds
Abiah helps me keep house. Zachery
and Jordan help their daddy with the outside work:
weeding, feeding the chickens. Our children
are smart, well-mannered, and obedient,
with sweet smiles and (mostly) clean fingernails.
Oxford and I are proud and heartbroken:
our miracles surrendered to this world.
Our children forced to live on sorrow food.
Should I have bowed and said master with gentle eyes?
Should I never have glared into his face?
We’ve shared this household like a family
of wolverines and white-tailed deer
the ferocious and the ever-eaten.
Manto is generous. Though the Great Wheel
sometimes seems to wobble, Manto is good.
But must we serve forever, hiding rage?
Ten years. Four babies born upstairs. The moons
of making home for our joined families,
of cooking, cleaning, washing, nursing the sick,
of scrubbing bootees for nine babies in all
How shall I look in the face of Richard Lord
who just called me and Oxford in and said,
“This man has bought you two and your baby
We’ll keep the other three. Go get your things.”

This poem is from “The Witness Stones Project” portfolio that appeared in the November 2021 issue of Poetryfoundation.org.

James K. A. Smith noted that in early December, Image partnered with the LOGOS Poetry Collective and the Luce Center for the Arts & Religion to host a “liturgically-inflected” poetry reading that included Marilyn Nelson. Smith writes:

I had no idea how hungry I was for such an evening with actual embodied humans gathered by art and transcendence. Lighting up the night but also naming the dark. The song of human voice wed to the heart-rhythms of poetic line. A wonderful community of people who, finding friendship in poetry, truly experienced communion.

I’m not doing justice to how moving this evening was. [My wife] and I both left with eyes wet, hearts full, and hope abounding. Thankfully, you can get a taste of the evening in the recording on the LOGOS Collective Facebook book.

About R.H. (Rusty) Foerger

As I enter the third third of life, I am becoming aware of the role of elders today “to enlarge spiritual vision, being devoted to prayer, living in the face of death, as a living curriculum of the Christian life” (Dr. James M. Houston). I am a life long and life wide learner who seeks to: *decipher the enigma of our worth *rescue from the agony of prayerlessness *integrate spiritual friendship.
This entry was posted in Current Events. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Love Juggles Anvils

  1. A powerful story and poem, Rusty. Thank you for sharing this! 💜

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.