Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
An Issue of Mercy #1
What the mother might have said, pointing
at the sun rising, what makes life possible.
Then, dripped the bowl of water,
reverent, into oblivious earth.
Was this prayer for her?
Respect for the dead or disappeared?
An act to please a genius child?
Her daughter would speak
of water, bowl, sun—
sometime after the nice white lady
paid and named her for the slave ship.
Mercy: what the child called Phillis
would claim after that sea journey.
Let's call it that.
Let's lie to each other.
Not early descent into madness.
Naked travail among filth and rats.
What got Phillis over that sea?
What kept a stolen daughter?
Perhaps it was mercy,
Water, bowl, sun—
a mothering, God's milky sound.
Morning shards, and a mother wondered
if her daughter forgot her real name,
refused to envision the rest:
baby teeth missing
and somebody wrapping her treasure
(barely) in a dirty carpet.
You know the story—
how we've lied to each other.
-after Romare Bearden’s painting “Odysseus Rescued by Sea Nymphs”
How many sat underwater,
entangled by myth’s past tense,
before Neptune first raised his
beard in the direction of Ethiopia,
and after, Odysseus—
was saved by Homer’s tablet?
Centuries after that story was written,
in the land of Not Make Believe,
a crew of slave-ship sailors
threw one hundred and thirty-two
Africans into the Atlantic Ocean.
Heave-ho to souls.
And people. And laws. And kin.
But Odysseus lives. He always will,
Our Great White Hope—
before whiteness was invented—
this hero who longs for the wood’s sway.
Despite his tendency to chase tail—
sirens and sundry other
I want to be happy that Homer imagined
a sea housing pretty, forgiving Nymphs—
while somewhere else, a wheel dances
and someone else drowns.
Sharks should pass Odysseus by,
never imagining his taste.
The gods shouldn’t pull at his fate—
now angry, now benevolent.
I try hard not to blame that man:
We all deserve our Maker’s love.
-West Africa, c. 15th century to 19th century
The men arrive. Slave ships are anchored.
The men arrive. The traders gather.
The men arrive. The traders march.
The men arrive. The war is waged.
The men arrive. The fire comes.
The men arrive. The people run.
The men arrive. The chase begins.
The men arrive. The dead abandoned.
The men arrive. The iron sounds.
The men arrive. The people march.
The men arrive. The sea. The sea.
The men arrive. The traders haggle.
The men arrive. The silver laughs.
The men arrive. The castle groans.
The men arrive. The door opens.
The men arrive. The water welcomes.
The men arrive. The mourning longs.
The men arrive. Our names shall scatter.
-from The Age of Phillis (Wesleyan Poetry Series, 2020, NAACP Image Award Winner, LA Times Book Prize Finalist, PEN Voelcker Award Finalist), selected by POW Spring 2021 Guest Editor, Cyrus Cassells.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers was born in 1967 and grew up in Durham, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. Her work examines culture, religion, race, and family. Her first book, The Gospel of Barbecue (2000), was selected by Lucille Clifton for the Stan and Tom Wick poetry prize and was a 2001 Paterson Poetry prize finalist. Her subsequent collections include The Age of Phillis (2020); The Glory Gets (2015); Red Clay Suite (2007), which received second prize in the Crab Orchard Review’s open competition; and Outlandish Blues (2003).