© Nehassaiu DeGAnnes
In 1734...Angèlique, a Black slave of François Poulin of Montréal, was told that she was
to be sold. In her fear and resentment she set fire to her master’s house. The house and
other nearby property were destroyed, and Angèlique was arrested convicted of arson
and sentenced to hang. A rope was tied around her neck, signs bearing the word
‘Incendiary’ were fastened on her back and chest, and she was driven through the streets
in a scavenger’s cart. Worse was to come: she was tortured until she confessed her
crime before a priest; then her hand was cut off and she was hanged in public.”
––Daniel G. Hill, The Freedom Seekers––Blacks in Early Canada
Heavy black boots crunch up HOPE
ST. So this is Providence, Rhode Island.
My tongue is dubious of New England names:
BENEVOLENT and ANGELL appear and reappear
in thick circles of air. Across LLOYD, I run
purple woolen fingers along a strophe of iron
bars, tasting dates hammered into iron
plates. Here, history gives itself away. MOUNT HOPE
is not a mountain, a fort, not even a church, but a day-care center run
by women. Mothers who come from the islands (not this island),
leave on mornings. Now at dusk, they reappear
purple silhouettes against a chain-link fence, whistling names.
One child quivers at the hiss and ring of her name.
In the antilles, a wet finger kissing hot iron
flickers the way a snake’s tongue flickers –– a woman reappears,
then disappears, begging light at my grandmother’s door. She hopes
to reclaim a body; she has come for her island
daughter. A tropical silhouette, I run,
wading thick snow until I can’t out run
the years anymore; even streets shed their names.
HOPE belts EAST looping south to BLACKSTONE –– la ceinture d’isle.
So I bury the belt to my traveling dress under the ironweed
next to a paling fence, a sway-backed serpent molting hope
of everlasting life. Saltwater souls appear to disappear
from this New England town. Once, in New France, I appeared
a cardboard plaque for a face; black ink running
incendiary language, a mother’s reverent hope
for a daughter––HELLO, MY NAME IS: MY FATHER’S NAME
IS: IN CASE OF FIRE, CALL––Now my feet really feel like iron
belle bruised and weighted, ringing this plantation island.
An electric crucifix crests that real mountain island,
where mother and child are sighted. Reappearing.
At dusk, white lights twinkling on a skeleton of iron,
we begin our thunderous descent. Blood runs. A river runs
down my brown thighs. Yes, menarche shares its name
with moon: this flowering fist is a vain stump of hope.
I sigh ANGELL; Angèlique appears. In a flickering red run
a siren’s angelus, Rhode Island ignites the palingenesis of a name.
My bilingual retina hosts her smoldering, my ironic hunger for home.
Poet's Note: Though haunted by "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations," I didn't know when I wrote the poem... But found out several years later ––– There is historical evidence to suggest Marie-Angelique was purchased in New England, and quite possibly Rhode Island! Trust the messages that come to you on the wind...
"Ironweed" appears in Callaloo (Johns Hopkins U. Press,) and the chapbook, Percussion, Salt & Honey (winner of The Philbrick Poetry Prize.) It will soon be available in Nehassaiu's first book-length collection, Music For Exile, due out from Tupelo Press in 2021.