Josh Poteat is an award-winning poet whose work is inspired in part by Richmond’s past. In this excerpt of one of his poems, Poteat commemorates an enslaved blacksmith and freedom fighter named Gabriel who was born near Richmond. Gabriel was executed by hanging in 1800 after organizing a large slave revolt. He was pardoned by Governor Tim Kaine in 2007. In the second audio segment below, Poteat shares about his personal experience connecting with Gabriel and with punk music.
Letter to Gabriel Written in the Margins of Murder Ballads
Here is a story in the worst way. I have no business being anywhere in it.
It comes between me and the life I have coming.
— Gary Lutz
Blood of my abyss, illegible voice, was the morning kind?
The cold dawns here, steaming through.
I imagine you in a field
across the river, floodplain attic,
lichen brailed thin on the pump-house door.
You are dead in the gallows and not dead,
the rope cannot claim you.
It is another century.
Things are not better or worse.
You came without a horse
and left us human hair in the tulip tree,
strange among the blossoms.
For years we weren’t terrified,
we carried around your death, its severity.
The terror lasts, your grave a wide field now,
but I never thought of it as something separate.
There’s no other way to say it:
I was built by slaves,
carved skin white-pined
like sand and tobacco
and the Poteat name
that pulls me from you.
Say the words
the fields would speak.
The bloodline stops
All the sleeping Poteats.
All their skin, impossible to see.
All their land and gauzed light.
All the asphalt and rain between us.
All the kerosene on the carpet,
kudzu weaving doors shut.
All great-great-grandfathers gutting
pigs. All great-grandmothers
throwing sand on the blood.
All industry siphoned.
All selves creek-banked, collapsed.
All plantations a coffin, a little vandalism.
The whole family, haunted.
I’ve played the slave narratives
in abandoned places —
among the candles
Silo, dirt, house
where the vultures live.
All to bring you back.
There’s a shopping mall
where your anvil stood.
I bought socks, a button-down shirt,
and sat in the parking lot listening
to the corroded wax cylinders —
becoming a column of air
anyone can pass through.
I never deserved to hear them.
There is only one year,
and it repeats itself forever.
Forfeit the dead grass,
the rim of dandelion
and mortgage. Forfeit
the factory where the marrow
is pulled. Forfeit taxonomy,
the legalese of the law office
windows at sunset, so many
heretofores and to wits. Forfeit foreclosure,
the vacant lots, stairs leading to white
grass and sunlight. Where houses
were sewn together, now gone.
Foundations, the absence
of ruin is just as quiet, nonbeing
where was being, remains.
I have never been hungry.
You invented hunger and handed it to the owl,
200-year-old crime-scene tape slung from the bridges.
What should the new map look like?
Help me, moonlight.
Bring the granary to the sky,
burnt yellow called down.
The night that took you
will take us too.