Mose is black and evil
And damns his luck
Driving Mister Schwartz's
Big coal truck.
He's got no gal,
He's got no jack,
No fancy silk shirts
For his back.
But summer evenings,
Hard luck Mose
Goes in for all
The fun he knows.
On the corner kerb
With a sad quartette
His tenor peals
Like a clarinet.
O hit it Moses
Sing att thing
But Mose's mind
Goes wandering; —
And to the stars
Over the town
Floats, from a good man
Way, way down —
A soft song, filled
With a misery
Older than Mose
Will ever be.
This is not Jordan River
There lies not Canaan
There is still
One more wide river to cross.
This is the Mississippi
And the stars tell us only
That this is not the road.
We do not know
If any have reached that Canaan
We have received no word.
Behind us the belling pack
Beyond them the hunters
Before us the dismal swamp
We do not know. . .
We have exchanged Louisiana for Mississippi
Georgia for Florida
Carolina for Tennessee.
We have passed, repassed
So many rivers
St Mary's, Mississippi,
We have leapt
From swamp land
We have won through
To blooded clay
To gravel and rock
To the baked lands
To the scorched barrens.
And we grow footsore
And muscle weary
Our faces grow sullen
And our hearts numb
We do not know. . .
We know only
That there lies not Canaan
That this is no River Jordan.
Still are we motherless children
Still are we dragging travelers
Alone, and a long ways from home.
Still with the hard earth for our folding bed
Still with our head pillowed upon a rock
With one more river,
Oh, one wide river to cross.
When they rode up at first dark and called his name,
He came out like a man from his little shack.
He saw his landlord, and he saw the sheriff,
And some well-armed riff-raff in the pack.
When they fired questions about the meeting,
He stood like a man gone deaf and dumb,
But when the leaders left their saddles,
He knew then that his time had come.
In the light of the lanterns the long cuts fell,
And his wife's weak moans and the children's wails
Mixed with the sobs he could not hold
But he wouldn't tell, he would not tell.
The Union was his friend, and he was Union,
And there was nothing a man could say.
So they trussed him up with stout ploughlines,
Hitched up a mule, dragged him far away
Into the dark woods that tell no tales,
Where he kept his secrets as well as they.
He would not give away the place,
Nor who they were, neither white nor black,
Nor tell what his brothers were about.
They lashed him, and they clubbed his head;
One time he parted his bloody lips
Out of great pain and greater pride,
One time, to laugh in his landlord's face;
Then his landlord shot him in the side.
He toppled, and the blood gushed out.
But he didn't mumble ever a word,
And cursing, they left him there for dead.
He lay waiting quiet, until he heard
The growls and the mutters dwindle away;
"Didn't tell a single thing," he said,
Then to the dark woods and the moon
He gave up one secret before he died:
"We gonna clean out dis brushwood round here soon,
Plant de white-oak and de black-oak side by side."
Father Missouri takes his own.
These are the fields he loaned them,
Out of heart's failure, gratuitously;
Here are the banks he built up for his children,
Here are the fields, rich fertile silt.
Father Missouri, in his dotage
Whimsical and drunkenly turbulent,
Cuts away the banks, steals away the loam,
Washes the ground from under wire fences,
Leaves fenceposts grotesquely dangling in the air;
And with doddering steps approaches the shanties.
Father Missouri, far too old to be so evil.
Uncle Dan, seeing his gardens lopped away,
Seeing his manured earth topple slowly in the stream,
Seeing his cows knee deep in yellow water,
His pigsties flooded, his flowerbeds drowned,
Seeing his prize leghorns swept down the stream,
Curses Father Missouri, impotently shakes
His fist at the forecloser, the treacherous skinflint;
Who takes what was loaned so very long ago,
And leaves puddles in his parlor, and useless lakes
In his fine pasture land.
See years of laboring turned into nothing.
Curses and shouts in his hoarse old voice
"Ain't got no right to act dat way at all!
No right at all!"
And the old river rolls on. sleepily to the gulf.
Harlem Street Walkers
Why do they walk so tragical
Oh, never mind, when they are in
The grateful grave, each whitened skull
Will grin. . . .
from The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown
edited by Michael Harper
(Triquarterly Books, 1980)
photo : roy lewis