Of Senegambia and seven, she should have been of the not-to be-taken, the not-high price, for a not-prime boy’s a girl of the unsuitable labor (birth not work)—and that years away. (Some of the captured, their spirits: ships sinking in despair) but there might be a rising up: so she was of the constant watch, the on your guard, the danced on deck, the merchant Gwinn and Captain Fitch, the sterling purchase, oiled and slick before the shore, sold then resold in Boston Harbor (profit, barter and harvest/barter, harvest and profit; trinkets, slaves and salt cod/trinkets, salt cod and slave)
bought then brought on the middle passage but would one day read passages of her work in London; (a westerly) neither stowage, cash crop nor export—bidden thought garnering an almost-audience with George III, an actual one with Washington (for on a ship, your prayer is to reach as well as return) where once sharks were like horizontal commas parsing the sea’s endless sentence
She who’d been named for the schooner that brought her to Boston: three months scrunched in the hull: like being trapped in a capsized parrot’s rancid beak: the squawk, the whistle, the mimic of the ocean’s moods or the inhuman moans (that unequilateral tragic triangle). She remembers the parrots in the savannah’s oil palms, their charcoal heads and constant chatter, pearl millet in their beaks. Boston worthies called her a parrot: a literature mimic
but so little of that life in her tutored lines: merchant’s servant, sickly infants (two that perished) how there were more words but no means to publish them, the living conditions, the imprisoned husband, a free-black grocer who set penury on their table, Poems on Subjects Religious and Moral: hell is an elegy one never finishes, weeks before Christmas finds her weak before Christmas
and in her eye’s leaking northern light, she might have recalled Horace and Homer, declension and Greek, fame’s listing shimmer, those homilies on Washington and Milk at the Old South Meeting House; or though emancipated, she might have thought of escape, to “join the angelic train,” embarking on the ship sailing backwards through her name: Phyllis
David Mills is the author of two books, The Dream Detective and The Sudden Country, a Main Street Rag book-prize finalist. He has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Lannan Foundation, Arts Link, and elsewhere, as well as a BRIO award. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Crab Orchard Review, Jubilat, Fence, Callaloo, and The Brooklyn Rail. His poems have been displayed at the Venice Biennale and Germany’s Documenta International Art Exhibition. He has performed his poetry on ESPN and recorded with RCA Records. You can watch him read his work for Undefeated here.
“The Almost Audience (for Phyllis Wheatley)” first appeared in TLR: Chemistry. Mills also previously published in TLR in Winter 2009, the Africa Calling issue.