The White Immensities

 
The Recollections of Jemison Jackson:
Slave, Runaway, Freedman, Lecturer,
Retired – Colored Infantry Union Army
 

1. Tatters
   1863

The clothes weren’t the worst of it –
old nanny took up the white thread
& patched as best she could.
But there weren’t much thread so
she would take some out
of the hem, & my pantaloons
wound up just under my knee –
not near the ankle at all. So it was,
that I was mostly in patches, covered
just enough for a field hand.
Zachariah made a gris- gris
of field mice teeth. My wife kept it
wrapped in corn husks, tucked under
a palette of straw. I couldn’t get to her
or it – ‘fore joining up. The sign came
too quick – a blue cap waving the all-clear
at the tree line – I ran until
all of my patches gave way & I stood
before men in nothing but my shame.
 
 
 

2. Cold Remembrance
   1864

That final winter it snowed in Tennessee
enough to stiff a man’s feet to cowhide.
Sun didn’t make a difference –
it didn’t seem to be the same sun. No
heat. For days nothing melted.
We walked in a powder whisper,
& our hearts caught in the crack
of snow & fallen icicles.
An endless trample of boots
over frozen streams, the cold
so sharp it razored our coarse
cloth. To the ice encrusted trees
I said, Wife come walk with me,
but my dear had been chained
to a white pine in Mississippi.
To the blanched sky I called out, Lord
I am but a man in your great, gelid
hands, come cure this chill –

but God’s ear was taken-up
by the masters of severance.
 
 
 

3. Take Me to the Water

The first thing we did with the reward
of an early evening free after chow
was to trot some upstream, strip down
to pantaloons & step into the river.
The one of us who had some reading
we called Preacher.
He put his right hand atop our heads
& one by one pushed us down
under the water & we rose up
clean as a new day.
 
 
 

In the name of the Father
In the name of the Son
In the name of the Holy Ghost
 
 
 
 

4. Manumission

– Sometime after having learned to read

The book left the feel of its spine
on my fingertips, it’s turned edges –
flushed my lips, brow & cheek. Bereft
until I found the means to secret it away
with the others gathered in my small room
(every shelf weighted, every drawer spilling
its contents). In bed, I lay shamelessly
among them – countless women, men –
tasting the eggshell pages, courting the heavier
sheets with their stenciled illustrations –
a library I pressed to my breastbone & thighs.
I blanketed them as if to halt a draft.
Is this excess? Culled from their bindings –
life upon life – delivered by the sweeping eye.
 
 
 

5. Summer Whiting
   1877

Not smooth, nor downy – though fair enough
to frighten. My right hand shook upon that foreign cheek –
pale hillock my fingers moved over like the padding feet
of a bear, which was what she expected – to be mauled
in some manner – but I was gentle – fur where she imagined
claw, & writhed so beneath me that I wanted to silence her
ecstasy. She bit my palm. Her hips bucked
as if swimming         or drowning.
She shouted     Yes     Yes     in so guttural a fashion,
I lost my appetite for pleasure,
but curiosity held me up –
a lake of flax, the fish
compulsively swallowing,
& the water rising
just past my brow.
 
 
 

6. Wife

We jumped the broom at 16. Of course
marriage wasn’t allowed between us
that were slaves so we did it in secret,
in Zachariah’s cabin. Being the oldest
at God’s Bounty he knew the right
words to speak. Everyone laid hands
on us, kissed us, but no one clapped.
No one sang. She wore her one dress.
Her hair had been let loose
from its strings & sat in oiled waves
on her head. I planted a nose to her cheek
& she came to my cabin that night.
At dawn the bell rang, but she was already
headed toward the field.

*

I meant to go back.
That was my intention.
They sold her after I ran. You understand –
the sign came so fast I couldn’t have gone back
then. When I finally did there was nothing left
of our Bounty, but ruin: the corpse of a house,
the blackened crops & Zachariah.
How did he remember me?
I ate an ear of withered corn, & lingered,
but desired only to be North again.