“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.