The Great Awakening

                                                               Oh, de wars and de scrapes
                                                               And de sprees am done—sprees am done
                                                               De foe am beat.
                                                               De Turks am drowned—Turks am drowned.
                                                               All safe and sounds
                                                               To our wives we come . . .
                                                               Otello, by T. D. Rice

Dreams may come from the enemy—
from the business of the past day—
from a disordered body—
from moral evil—
from God,
through the medium of the Angels, and departed saints, as forewarnings to stir up and prepare the mind for the scenes ahead.
    I fell into a slumber; and in it I dreamed that two devils entered the room, each with a chain in his hand; they laid hold on me, the one at my head, the other at my feet, and bound me fast, and breaking out the window, carried me a distance from the house and laid me on a spot of ice, and while the weaker devil flew off in flames of fire, the stronger one set out to carry me down to hell.
   I put my hands together and said, Lord I submit to go and preach thy gospel; only grant my peaceful hours to return, and open the door.
   Here I received the solemn news of the death of our only child.
   The vibration of the earth shook down the trees, thousands of willows were swept off like a pipe stem, about waist high, and the swamps became high ground, and high land became low ground, and two islands in the river were so shaken, washed away and sunk, as not to be found.
From this I infer some trouble is at hand,
But the film was already starting—
The sounds came in waves, higher
and higher, at the top of it
someone screaming—
Now what you call your great disappointment,
I call the Great Awakeneing—
When I heard (though not always
in these old forgotten words I remember) the first of three visions—
Yet if you tell me they are only
my dear dead returning,
I would not disbelieve you.
It is an odd sort of fortune to have lived an adventurous life.
In my disgust, I left school and devoted
all my blighted spirit to minstrelsy;
I had no natural aptness for the banjo,
but for dancing—
such a remarkable gift few ever saw.
The first part of our performances
 we gave with white faces;
and by practicing to knock spin and toss the tambourine
back in my room,
I was now the “Scotch Girl” in plaid petticoats.
Besides my Highland Fling, I took the principal lady parts
in the negro ballets;
for a lad, I danced “Lucy Long” so admirably
a planter in one of the Southern States insisted on purchasing me,
until the door-tender kicked that planter down the stairs.
Old Ephraim was one of the most comical specimens
of the negro species,
the blackest face, largest mouth, whitest teeth;
What could he do?
Why, he could fetch water, black our boots, take care of our baggage.
My father said of Howie Gray
who worked beside him every day at the South Station PO
and put both his sons through college,
“He’s not an uppity Negro.”
My father meant that as a compliment.
There were tears in his eyes when Howie Gray died.
Every man his own radio—
It hath been thought that the dying speeches of such as have been executed among us
might be of singular use to correct the crimes wherein too many do live
   Billington, disregarding the commotion he was causing and the certainty of apprehension, reloaded and stalked his enemy.
   She concealed her crime until the time of her delivery, and then being delivered alone by her self in a dark room, she murdered the harmless and helpless infant.
   Foster didn’t say a word. He just picked up a steal boomer and smashed Pikin over the head with it.
  I went forth to be delivered in the field, and dropping my child by the side of a little pond (whether alive or stillborn I cannot tell), I covered it over with dirt and snow and speedily returned home.
   He struck the helpless Kling again and again
   Mr. Spooner strove to speak, when down, Brooks took him by the throat and partly strangled him. Ross and Buchanan came out. Ross took Mr. Spooner’s watch and gave it to Buchanan. Brooks and Ross took him up and put him in the well head first. Before they carried him away, I, Buchanan, pulled off his shoes.
   Eight streaks of splattered blood. Eight murderous strokes of an axe or knife.
   Was found, by a person with a dog, crossing the fields, in a piece of woods a little distance from Brandywine to the Turk’s Head, two dead infants.
Now what you call your Great Awakening,
I call Much Ado,
I call The Big Sleep—
But when did I become someone on whom
everything is lost?
Like the dream I lifted from my father like a Band-Aid—
Where I checked hats,
that instantly, embarrassingly disappeared—
My earnest offers to return the $1.00 gratuity
raining down on dead ears—
I thought I was boyish.
It availed me nothing.

Robert Polito, "The Great Awakening" from Hollywood & God. Copyright © 2009 by Robert Polito.  Reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
Source: Hollywood & God (University of Chicago Press, 2009)
More Poems by Robert Polito