Winner of the Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets

Dear Moses Grandy…Love, the Great Dismal Swamp (1930)

“It was the dense, tangled hostility of the [Great Dismal] swamp and its enormous size that enabled hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of escaped slaves to live here in freedom.”

Smithsonian Magazine, September 2016


“Here, among snakes, bears and panthers… I felt to myself so light, that I almost thought I could fly… I then thought I would not have left the place to go to heaven.”

—Captain Moses Grandy, a formerly enslaved man, on living in the Great Dismal Swamp, circa 1843


I send men swarms of insects in the shape of your ghost.

They are not wrong to think me haunted, possessed as I am


by spirits exhumed from bodies left strewn in my wake. I trick

them into thinking me God, but to them I am Eden, wicked


paradise of poison, fruit and beasts. I steep sweat from acrid

flesh, sip it in pinpricks with the tongues of jewel-toned bees.


I spill their blood in your name. When it seeps into my murk, I turn

a rich maroon hue, and I remember you fondly, longing


for nights when there was nothing but you and me, twilight’s ichor

and wind quivering in my reeds—a southern serenade. I hope


you knew I heard the song of your silence, your heartbeat

camouflaged in the thrumming pulse of mine. Now, they smelt


molten asphalt into my arteries, litter the air with my ashes. I watch

myself burn and search for your face in the flames. I knew you


then as amalgam of marsh and man, sometimes just tar-black

beads sunk into star-white glow—your eyes glinting in the glass


of my stillness. Under the cover of dusk you snuck nips of raw

honeysuckle, lugged saw-shorn juniper trunks through my mud.


Like your namesake, you made many waters from my one,

and like the Red Sea, I opened—bared my soul to your people,


and closed to your tormentors. I cherish the sacred pleasure

of being parted by your hands. I ache for the long-ago days


when your vessel’s crest gently unzipped my quiet mire

like the waning sun ripples liquid along the horizon’s serrated blade.


You told me then that you would not have left me for Heaven itself,

so I drag them through the Hell they wanted me to be for you.

Ariana Benson is a poet from Chesapeake, Virginia. She was a finalist in the 2019 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize, and the 2021 Pink Poetry Prize. Her poems appear in Anomaly, Lunch Ticket, Southern Humanities Review, and Auburn Avenue, where she serves as nonfiction editor, and are forthcoming in Great River Review and an upcoming Diode Editions anthology. Through her writing, she strives to fashion vignettes of Blackness that speak to its infinite depth and richness.