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Robert Hayden, A Ballad of Remembrance, 1962


“The Ballad of Nat Turner”


Then fled, O brethren, the wicked juba

                  and wandered wandered far

from curfew joys in the Dismal’s night.

                  Fool of St. Elmo’s fire


In scary night I wandered, praying,

                  Lord God my harshener,

speak to me now or let me die;

                  speak, Lord, to this mourner.


And came at length to livid trees

                  where Ibo warriors

hung shadowless, turning in wind

                  that moaned like Africa,


Their belltongue bodies dead, their eyes

                  alive with the anger deep

in my own heart. Is this the sign,

                  the sign forepromised me?


The spirits vanished. Afraid and lonely

                  I wandered on in blackness.

Speak to me now or let me die.

                  Die, whispered the blackness.


And wild things gasped and scuffled in

                  the night; seething shapes

of evil frolicked upon the air.

                  I reeled with fear, I prayed.


Sudden brightness clove the preying

                  darkness, brightness that was

itself a golden darkness, brightness

                  so bright that it was darkness.


And there were angels, their faces hidden

                  from me, angels at war

with one another, angels in dazzling

                  combat. And oh the splendor,


The fearful splendor of that warring.

                  Hide me, I cried to rock and bramble.

Hide me, the rock, the bramble cried. . . .

                  How tell you of that holy battle?


The shock of wing on wing and sword

                  on sword was the tumult of

a taken city burning. I cannot

                  say how long they strove,


For the wheel in a turning wheel which is time

                  in eternity had ceased

its whirling, and owl and moccasin,

                  panther and nameless beast


And I were held like creatures fixed

in flaming, in fiery amber.

But I saw I saw oh many of

                  those mighty beings waver,


Waver and fall, go streaking down

                  into swamp water, and the water

hissed and steamed and bubbled and locked

                  shuddering shuddering over


The fallen and soon was motionless.

                  Then that massive light

began a-folding slowly in

                  upon itself, and I


Beheld the conqueror faces and, lo,

                  they were like mind, I saw

they were like mine and in joy and terror

                  wept, praising praising Jehovah.


Oh praised my honer, harshener

                  till a sleep came over me,

a sleep heavy as death. And when

                  I awoke at last free


And purified, I rose and prayed

                  and returned after a time

to the blazing fields, to the humbleness.

                  And bided my time.


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