Briefe Historie of the Noose in the Colonie of Virginia

David Wojahn Click to read more...

David Wojahn’s most recent collection, World Tree, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2011. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA, as well as the 2008 Carole Weinstein Prize and the 2013 Poets Prize.

      I.

Gabriel Prosser, Hanged in Richmond for Inciting Slave Rebellion, 1800

Turning our Tortures into horrid Arms Against our Torturer…. Paradise Lost --Book II
The smithy, arms akimbo at his forge. The sweat Beads glisten; long scars zigzag his ebon skull. The flame erupts, the umber brick itself a-glow. He hammers & shapes, hammers & shapes the white-hot Iron to a luminous inverted U. But alone now, from the corner Beyond his tools, he unwraps his hoarded treatises, Swadled in cloth. Paradise Lost. Common Sense: “the strength and power Of despotism consists wholly in the fear of resistance.” He turns the pages in the conflagrating light. The time Is neigh: let us turn the ploughshares into swords, Cudgels, pikes, knives to hold upon the perfumed Throat of Governor Monroe. But the plot will be revealed, Captured, he is brought in chains to the Richmond gallows. The neck snaps instantly, the “dignified demise,” Reserved for reprobate elite. Not so lucky are his fellows. The cart & tree gallows mode: half an hour you gasp within the noose. II. Daniel Frank, Hanged in Henricus for Stealing a Calf: 1623
…but his face Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care Sat on his faded cheek… --Book I
Sunday morning—the Godwins are in church & he creeps to the pen on hands & knees. For an endless hour he’s lain in the razoring stealth Of a briar patch, awaiting their cart to creak Toward steeple & hellfire. He rises to a crouch & the noose is slipped & tightened about the neck Of a cream & brindle calf-ling, more rope cinched Three times around her legs. Hard to lift, & of course she struggles all the way to his wagon. Five long years he’s tilled tobacco fields, Serving out his Indenture to Miles Perrin. But he’s free now— to let his first child Perish of pox, his wife of childbed fever. When the sheriff Comes upon the calf-ling, tied to an oak to graze & bray In a forest clearing, is it not Providence, Almighty justice That bids him hooded & strung from the self-same tree? III. A Handbag Fashioned from the Skin of Nat Turner, 1830
Then when I am they captive talk of chains. --Book IV
They gentle the body down from noose to cart, So it might be pristine for dissection. But first A privileged few have been allowed to rummage it For trophies. The nails, a tooth, the scalp. The top-hatted figures bob up & down inside the cart Like pistons, supplicants whirligig-ing prayer wheels & this one slices a foot-square piece, the delicate & fine-haired dermis of the lower back. It pulls Off daintily, like cutting the pages of a novel by Scott. Cover it in salt for 30 days, & in a broth Of seawater & urine, stir it daily & soak it 30 days longer. To remove the fine hairs, apply the milk of lime. Now, razor the remaining hairs. The bating will soften it, the pickling in salt & sulfuric acid soften it further. A coin purse, workmanship flawless, befitting a lady of refinement. It laves & caresses the palm of her hand. IV. Various Nooses Said to Hang John Brown, Charles Town, December, 1859
For never can true recouncilement grow Where wounds of deadly hate have pierce’d so deep…. --Book IV
One in Massachusetts, gift of Roscoe Taylor. One in the West Virginia Historical Museum, Also one in Lynchburg, another in Fort Royal. In NYC, where the coffin came for burial, a mortician claimed the noose still coiled his neck, waxing poetic: The next best thing to the ladder Jacob saw. He is not Old Brown, opined Thoreau. He is an Angel of Light, Though to other abolitionists he was crazed: blackguard, outlaw. & what the Charleston & Richmond papers said of him is Easy to imagine. Yet even Stonewall Jackson, Reporting the body drop, lauded his unflinching firmness. To the gallows he rode atop his own rude coffin. Verbose as always, he meant his final screeds To be good PR. The crimes of this guilty land will never Be purged away but with blood. Off to the Blue Ridge he pointed. Beautiful country! I never had the pleasure of seeing it before. V. The Lynching of James Jordan, Waverly, Sussex County, 1925
And on methought, alone I pass’d through ways That brought me on a sudden to the Tree… --Book V
Let us note that to lynch is not to hang. The hanging, as Schuler reminds us, comes nearly last & the process is protracted grievous rite. A white woman “attacked” in her home, her pistol stolen, Jordan alleged to sell it to “another negro.” Jordan is thus identified, confesses, jailed. The mob then storms the jail. The crowd grows, The sheriff shackled in his own cuffs. Jail door battered, The prisoner dragged into the street, pleading mercy. No one masked. Shotguns fired into the air As they string him from a telegraph pole by the Chessy & Ohio station. As he strangles, more shots fired— The body riddled now & doused with kerosene. A thrown flare alights it. The Norfolk/Greensboro Express rockets by, for this is not a town That warrants a stop. But the engineer slows for a better view. VI. How To Tie a Hangman’s Knot, 510,952 Views: (Juvenile, Name Withheld, 7 May 2012)
Consult how we must henceforth most offend Our Enemy, our own loss how repair. --Book I
Adderal-fueled. Kid Rock on his speakers. 2 a.m. Pale fingers click The keyboard. Parents long asleep, the rope heaped on his desk. He follows the voiceover entranced. The most iconic Of knots….Easy to make… absorbs movement & shock Notably well. You will need a single length of rope. Create A long u-shaped bend or “bight,” tipped On its left side. Use adequate rope, for this knot Requires a minimum of 7 turns, with 13 preferred. Create another bight at the end of the first, in its Opposite direction. The rope should look like an “S.” Put the end of the rope over all 3 legs. (A “turn” is the name for this.) Continue the wrapping at least 6 times more. Stop To tighten each one as you make it. The top of the second bight should poke out noticeably above the topmost turn, Forming a loop. Pass the end of the loop from front to back. Pull the right hand edge of the loop & tighten. Tighten again. VII. Three Monkeys on Main: Watching the Walter Scott Shooting, 2015
…dire was the noise Of conflict; over head the dismal hiss Of fiery Darts in flaming volies flew. --Book VI
Above the zinc bar’s taps & fifths, the 50-inch Flat screens, floating dark as the panels of Rothko’s Chapel— Then all come alive with CNN, iPhone footage Grainy, sound track hiss & murmur, the barrel Flashes vague starbursts. Nine sharp reports & the pixels of a running black man, named for a bard, Lie now in pixels of blood, the pixels of the cop Bending to place something bright on the ground Beside the body, already too bled-out to cuff, The barman & the drinkers transfixed. Then the clip Played again, again: pixels fleeing, pixels tumbling to asphalt & the object set like grave goods at the bloodied hip— Pixeled but Paleolithic. He’s the Tollund Man, noose Jerked tight as the bog awaits his millennial sleep. Now a voice from the bar—bastard got what he deserves. & then our craven silence: happy hour, the drinks are cheap. VIII. Noose Placed in a Tree at Varina High School: (Juvenile, Name Withheld, 9 May, 2012)
…save what is in destroying, other joy To me is lost…. --Book IX
By the parking lot, by the sign announcing “Our Town,” don’t text & drive!, SPRING FLING, From the oak ringed with mulch & pansies, From a limb so sturdy it could dangle a body, it swings. Pendulum-ing, a-gleam in April breeze, brightened By the flash of a dozen cell phone cams. Hovering And blazing with delusive light, writes Milton, So glistered the dire snake. O serpentine one, Ever-loquacious in your slither up & down the Knowledge Tree. Not so different from this kid stoked on weed, in a Nine Inch Nails tee, Slinking up at midnight with his grim semiotic, his livery. Almost losing his grip, he checks his fall, then knots it snugly. & now the twine uncoils & hisses down. Later, the county will ferret him out. Later, there is “appropriate disciplinary action” & workers in a cherry picker cut it down writhing to the dirt.
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Discussion

2 Responses to Briefe Historie of the Noose in the Colonie of Virginia

  1. Richard Weaver says:

    At first I thought Berryman hadn’t died, or was being channeled. The syntax. The ampersands aplenty. And the history rendered with shining details. The odd near, slant, or just off rhymes. But each sectioned pushed me forward (though the not strict chronology still puzzles), until
    Kid Rock made a cameo, and Nine Ice Nails had a product placement. I knew for a fact I was caught in the Wojahn webs. Rock N Roll rules.

    I offer what follows as further backdrop to the poem – not that it requires more evidence or is unclear in its message and purpose. It’s just damn interesting.

    The honorific of being the first recorded execution in the new colonies went to Captain George Kendall who did the dance of death in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. Kendall was executed after being accused of being a suspected Spanish spy. In 1612, Virginia Governor Sir Thomas Dale enacted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, (he was a far-thinker, and would be right at home today) which provided the death penalty for even minor offenses such as stealing grapes, killing chickens, and trading with Indians.

  2. Richard Fox says:

    Great poem. Thanks, David.

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