Tag Archives: slavery

In the Unsettled Land of Dreams

All Things That Matter Press has sent me the first edit of my new novel, In the Unsettled Land of Dreams.  I am working hard on the edit now, but it is slow.  One of the surprises is how long it is going to be in print.  I guess this is going to be one of the more significant works I produce in my lifetime, although I always am wracked by doubt about my longer works.

I thought I’d celebrate, though, by posting the first sonnet and paragraph in the novel.  Each chapter is prefaced by a sonnet and followed by text.  The book starts in Mingo Swamp in Missouri’s boot-heel country.  Joshua, a major character in the novel, is faced with one of several decisions that he will face on a day that promises to change his life forever.

Inflamed Imagining

A Spenserian Sonnet

Inside the swamp beside a cypress tree
(White herons in the water, bullfrog croaks
A symphony as dusk, as stealthily
As cat’s feet stalking small, shy birds, evokes
The coming night) the Preacher slowly stokes
The fire blazed in his heart and starts to sing
Songs powerful enough to loosen yokes
White masters forged through endless menacing.

The words he used burned deep; he felt their sting
And saw his spirit fire alive in eyes
Awake to dreams, inflamed imagining
Of days spent free beneath glad years of skies.

The darkness deepened underneath the tree.
He’d preach, he thought, then, later on, they’d flee.

Joshua did not want to go with his mother when she came down from Master Bulrush’s big house after dark where she was the Mistresses’ servant. He had gone through another miserable day. His stubbornness, born out of unfocused resentment, was always getting him into trouble. He couldn’t seem to want to protect himself.

The Overseer, an aging black man called Silver Coats who had terrorized Bulrush plantation slaves for years, had struck out with his whip and cut a shirt already threadbare twice that day. The last time the whip’s cord had cut him, leaving a long, red whelp crusted with blood on his skin. The deep, painful cuts were made on purpose. The Overseer was an expert at how deep his whip bit flesh.

Joshua, small for his age, mostly didn’t cry when the big black man, gray haired, light skinned, with a mean streak and perpetually snarling face, whipped him. He was fourteen years old and had long ago decided he was not going to cry every time the Overseer, or Master, brought out one of the whips hung in a small lean-to shed attached to the plantation’s red barn.

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Emerging Into Freedom

by Thomas Davis

Waves rolled with curving lines into the shore.
Lake Michigan horizoned into sky.
They watched a dark brown, white crowned osprey soar
Above the waves and heard its hunting cry.

Inside pinched spirits chained by slavery
And endless hours of suffocating fear,
Bonds loosened as the dream and fantasy
Of freedom suddenly seemed real, so near
To where they stood above the giant lake
They were not sure they had not reached a future
Aware of who they were, the earth awake
To spirits that had passed through deadly danger.

Inside the distant swamp they’d been but slaves.
They stood upon a hill and listened to the waves.
Note: I have been working on a novel about a black fisherman community founded on Washington Island prior to the Civil War in the wilderness of Wisconsin. This is the eleventh sonnet published here that heads chapters in the novel. I have made slow progress, but the novel keeps expanding, so we’ll see if I have the energy and capability of finishing it. I am less than half way through at this point.

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Chicago on the Road to Freedom

a terza rima sonnet

By Thomas Davis

Cacophony, noise, horses, people, smells,
A raging restlessness and energy
Unbounded from the places spirit dwells,
Infected them and made them want to flee
Their fleeing even as Chicago seethed
And made them wonder if their slavery
Was more than whips and white men wreathed
In arrogance, but something in their souls,
Their consciousness, the very air they breathed
That filled their lives with loss and empty holes
Where dreams should live and let life soar in skies
Removed from fear and all the deadly shoals
That, hidden, suddenly materialize
And snatch away a slave’s most longed-for prize.

Note: This continues the sonnet sequence I am writing. The sonnets, all of them different kind of sonnets, head each chapter in a novel that is giving me endless trouble. In the novel a large group of slaves from different plantations, led by a fiery Preacher, escape southern Missouri and head north toward Washington Island in Wisconsin. At this point in their escape they have reached Chicago.

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Two Sonnets: Washington Island’s Black Community

by Thomas Davis

Like Moses in the Wilderness

Like Moses fleeing from the Pharaoh’s wrath
Before the miracle of waters parting,
The Preacher blazed a trail on freedom’s path
As fear possessed their endless fleeing.
 
What was that man or woman really seeing
That passed them while they tried to run and hide?
What accident of fate would send them running
When slavers found them tired and terrified?
 
The Preacher prayed away grim miles and tried
To make their spirits testify that dreams
Are greater than the fear that crucified
Their faith that they could get across the streams
 
And past the towns that blocked their way and threatened
To let the slavers pounce and leave them bludgeoned.
 
The Bridge that was a Wall

The bridge, inside the night, was like a wall,
Small, wooden, unassuming, houses dark
Beside a path that seemed to be a call
To all who needed passage to embark
Upon a journey to the river’s other side.
They hid in brush, mouths dry, dread strong enough
To make them sick, and, silently, wide-eyed,
Saw spectres armed with whips and iron cuffs
Stand shining where they’d have to cross the bridge
Without disturbing dogs or waking up
The people in the houses as the ridge
Beyond the river beckoned past the interrupt
That stood between their anxious dreams and where
Their breaths would feel God’s freedom in the air.

Note:
These two sonnets continue the long series that tells the fictional story of the people of a black community that actually lived on Washington Island in the 1850s before unexpectedly disappearing. Two sonnets from this series were posted earlier.

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by Thomas Davis

Inflamed Imagining: Freedom

Inside the swamp, beside a cypress tree,
White herons in the water, bullfrog croaks
A symphony as dusk, as stealthily
As cat’s feet stalking small, shy birds, evokes
The coming night, the Preacher slowly stokes
The fire blazed in his heart and starts to sing
Songs powerful enough to loosen yokes
White masters forged through endless menacing.

The words he’d use burned deep; he felt their sting
And saw his spirit fire alive in eyes
Awake to dreams, inflamed imagining
Of days spent free beneath glad years of skies.

The darkness deepened underneath the tree.
He’d preach, he thought, then, later on, they’d flee.

Freedom’s First Night, Before Dawn
A Miltonian Sonnet with Two Coda

The white man, with his wide brimmed hat and face
Stunned pale inside a night that breathed with sounds
From woods they’d passed through in their frantic race
Against the coming dawn, turned back around
To look toward the barn that loomed ahead
Of where six families hid in scratchy brush.
He sighed as if he couldn’t flee the dread
He felt in dark before dawn’s first red blush.

“I made a space to hide you runaways,”
He said. He turned again and looked at eyes
That looked at him, cold fear a noxious glaze
Infecting even how the dreaded sun would rise.

“Six families can’t escape at once,” he said.
“I’ve got my family too. They’re still in bed.”

The Preacher looked into the man.
His eyes looked past white outer flesh
Into the place his soul began.
The white man turned again, the mesh

Of eyes surrounding him afraid
To move, to dream, to think they’d leave
This place before their master flayed
Their spirits, made their spirits grieve.

Note:  I’ve included two sonnets from my series on Washington Island’s black community that existed in the 1800s here.  I’ve posted others in the series earlier, although they were not written originally in a chronological order, so they represent how they are written, not how they should appear.  I didn’t know what I was doing at first.  However, the owner of the Fair Isle Bookstore on Washington Island convinced me to write a book about the 1800s black community since no books on that topic exist.  I thought about it, did some research, found some primary source documents, but they were not enough to produce a non-fiction work.  This series of sonnets began to expand.  Then I started writing a novel, which is in progress, with a sonnet ahead of each chapter.  These are the first two chapter heading sonnets in the novel.

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