Poem by Thomas Reiter

• June 2011

The Handbill

From plantations across the Leeward Islands,
SLAVES described below, to be auctioned
by Wm. Bagley and Sons, Ltd.,
of Christiansted, St. Croix,
promptly at noon on October 12, 1772,
on the Commons Ground.
Shaded seats may be reserved.
All individuals may be sold separately.
Bagley and Sons are pleased to provide
white gloves for examining the chattels.


The early morning of October 12,
Alexander Hamilton is reading from a handbill
the trade wind flattened against his steamer trunk
on the Christiansted wharf. He is seventeen
and waiting to board a brigantine
for the Colonies, and will never return.
What does he carry with him? Nothing
of his dead mother’s papers, not
the deposition for divorce that names him
“a whore’s child,” not the Anglican vicar’s
refusal of schooling to “an obscene child,”
not the copy of his birth record reading
11 January 1755, Nevis, West Indies,
then “illegitimate” in an ornate hand.


Pompey, ca. 40, reliable cane cutter, tongue removed.
Aurelia, ca. 12, garden worker, knows the catechism.
Mazerine, ca. 25, washerwoman, feeble mind, can wet-nurse.
Breadnut’s John, ca. 40, animal handler, good morals, never whipped.
Two suckling children, investment for the future.

An apprentice clerk at Kortright & Cruger
of St. Croix, import-export, he entered
the manifests of slavers from the Gold Coast,

he signed aboard sugar, molasses, rum.
But one time, preparing the chattels
for bidding fell to him alone

and that time falls upon him now.
He rubbed their muscles with palm oil
so they’d gleam like guilders, swabbed grease
in their mouths to look like they’d been fed

nutritious pork or beef, set monkeys
on their shoulders to eat fleas and lice.
Those men and women, why didn’t they
weep and curse and cry out
for their gods? he wonders. He felt
that one by one they memorized his face.
The slaves had no names as yet. “Pure
potential,” the auctioneer told him,
and “Clay a man’s right hand
working God’s will can shape.”


Folding the handbill that will be found
thirty years later among his papers,
something in an outsize font at the bottom
holds him. He’s ten years old again,
and with his best friend Ajax,
a house slave, he’s slipped into an auction
in Christiansted for this attraction
the whole island has been waiting for:

At half-past eleven see the celebrated
performing horse Blucher from Guadeloupe.

 

Thomas Reiter has published ten collections of poetry, his most recent being Catchment (LSU Press, 2009). He has received an Academy of American Poets Prize, and fellowships from the NEA and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in Poetry, the Kenyon Review, the Southern Review, the Georgia Review, the Hudson Review, the Sewanee Review, the Caribbean Writer, and the Caribbean Review of Books. He is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Monmouth University, where he held the Wayne D. McMurray Endowed Chair in the Humanities.