Rubbing from Harriett Jacobs's grave, Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA, on the wall of my studio

Rubbing from Harriett Jacobs's grave, Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA, on the wall of my studio


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

from The New World

Although it stands between the kidnappers 
and me There’s the baby’s cry again 
the third time this long night Although it stands 
before the kidnappers and testifies 
There the lamps are out They’re all finally 
asleep And testifies to what
I suppose I must call my freedom I don’t
like to look on it That ache in my teeth
comes the same as he used to bring
with his lash-threats and filthy compliments
From beyond the grave he has his triumph
I was sold like stock The paper says
Harriet Jacobs and below the name
of my Mistress Owner Friend I don’t know what
to call her and the three hundred dollars
she paid for me when I had written her
no Tonight my legs remember
their long confinement This chair will offer
no comfort no matter which way I turn
My dress is stained with milk and her children’s
handprints Before I can take up the pen
and continue to tell this life each night
empty-handed I sigh and force away
the cadences of their voices their praises
and questions their gentle needle demands

Even the babies’ beautiful reaching
even what she would call her love for me
is dangerous to what I try each night
with what poor resources I have to build
The pen’s nib splits On one side she
and her well-meaning sisters stand to admire
my weakness the very obstacle
that looms at me at this night desk
They draw me nearer But when our eyes meet
my own face becomes wordless and strange
On the other side my grandmother rolls up
her sleeves past her free elbows and fills
her free house with the smell of baking bread
She takes me in her arms and sings away
his barbed whisperings hooked in my skin
and I am protected but more Understood
But this too is a dream and a danger
I must stand at the pen’s point where the ink
sputters to the page such a small sharp island
miles from Edenton North Carolina
both safety and desolation and forget
the pale sleeping bodies in this house
the milky obligations that bind us
and wrap the free darkness close and summon
my cell and will myself back there and write

Dear Amy At last a moment I miss
the Rochester sisterhood tonight
This page is no company If I were there
I would tell you what is difficult to tell
here alone Dear Amy if it was the life
of a heroine with no degradation
But I am learning That is not my work
What would you make of this I am
no longer interested in virtue
The prison cottage my master built
miles from town and the lawyer’s bed
and the cell above my grandmother’s storeroom
bite head to tail and circle around me
Which of these snakes is most virtuous
I was sewing in the shade of a tree
at my grandmother’s door At last I told her
that in one war I had been the victor
in the other defeated My master’s campaign
  had failed had proved against all odds fruitless
but I carried Louisa the lawyer’s child
 I had rather see you dead she told me
Amy this minute she stands at my side
 than to see you as you are now a disgrace
to your dead mother
Have I told you
My mother was Delilah the free

tavernkeepers’ daughter my father Daniel
the carpenter They are buried together
The lawyer was kind in his own fashion
He promised to buy me and the children
My grandmother took my mother’s thimble
  and wedding ring and said Go away
Never come to my house again
I can see
the leaves on the dirt the latch of the gate
Martha Blount whose husband drove my uncle
Joseph hounded back from the North
drawn and chain-galled through the streets hid me when
I made my attempt Betty the cook
spoke to me through the floorboards charcoaled
my face and fit the sailor’s clothes Put your hands
in your pockets
she said and walk rickety
like de sailors
but the North boat did not sail
On the way to my grandmother’s garret
Amy your windowseat is not unlike it
in size the father of my children passed
so near I brushed against his arm
but he had no idea who it was
Dear Amy I leave it to you to decide
whether I deserve your pity or contempt
But I have another object It is
to come to you just as I am Harriet

Tonight I woke again afraid
from the dream of James in the cotton gin
He was here beside me He is here still
Charity’s James by this quilted bed
It’s the late hurried writing that brings him
his body lying in the machine meshes
four days five nights My hands ache They are not
strong enough to unscrew the press
and lift him out to wash the brine
from the cuts of the whip Shall I write instead
another life another story
where Charity’s son James stood on the wharf
before he set off on his north journey
and after his travels returned there and I
on a morning walk heard a neighbor call
 Have you seen Charity      James is home
But he and his comrades who crowd my room
when I wake at night have no use for this
They want the truth as much as I fear
I have none of the strength needed to tell it
Is there a way this silence can express
what my poor pen is not capable of
I have had no sleep There are the first finches
There is the light on the windowsill
They are stirring They are waiting for me

June 1867 Dear Amy
I am two days returned from Edenton
I cannot tell you how I felt there
The change is too great to take it all in
My grandmother’s house still stands on King Street
For me there was solace in every timber
I loved to sit there and think of her
to think of them all It was a hard winter
The freedmen were cheated out of their cotton
I spent many hours on the plantations
distributing seed hunting up the old people
and doing what I could for them
Now it is back to carpets and mantels
Louisa has been living on Long Island
as a governess to a twelve-year-old girl
She seems to like her situation
but I miss her very much indeed
I must stop It is very late
and I am in the only spot
where I can have a light The mosquitoes
have gathered and taken possession of me
My love to Miss Daisy Did she receive
the jasmine blossoms I sent her from there
Tell her they bear the fragrance of freedom
Believe me the same always Harriet