Books·CBC Literary Prizes

"African Canadian in Union Blue" by Michael Fraser

Michael Fraser won the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize for "African Canadian in Union Blue."
Michael Fraser won the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize for "African Canadian in Union Blue." (Krystyna Wesolowska)

I was AWOL, an unpaid ridge runner, hawking

distance from the coal-shaded Fifty-fourth

Massachusetts, pulling fleet foot through night

brush, my feet bramble-clawed and day-sore

yowling for a pair of spendy cruisers.

Bounty men near caught me in tamarack

larch. I saw their smoothbore guns day clear,

their eyes haired-up and owly. I was hanging

by my eyelids and angled abeam through

light-blazed meadow balm, jumping log cob

and bull stumps, moss-bitten rot-hole fallers,

deploying all the natural speed my buck-bred

seed-folk gave me. I was baseborn in Chatham,

mammy giving life to six pin-baskets in a rickety

pushcart. If I were to see him now, I'd ask daddy

why he heeled-off before eyeing me wrapped in

scrapped yarn. His master named him John, echoing

the new testament, and what mammy's broken water

branded me. Whitney's cotton gin nearly snapped

his hamitic saddle-brown back half open. Some days

he bleated raw like a crushed side-born calf, sliding

away from full breath. Heard he upped and skyrooted

through Virginia pine faster than whiskey jacks whistling

over feed camps, and sparked mammy's teenage

mind before stone-rolling to his novel life, a rail toad

booming around rusted aged jimmys and ragshag

toonerville trolleys. I continued dim-moon travelling

west through puckerbush, sledge, and prick-filled

tanglewood, lodging with other lucked-out negroes

beside slick calm finger lakes, hauling soaked rick to

hem-load tipcarts. We'd light down to chew tuff

cow-greased pone before snacking tobacco ropes,

our smoky tea-skinned black bodies day-whipped

and legged out. White clodhopper abolitionists and

schoolmarms let me sleep on shakedowns and boil-up

my battered threads out back, stooped over hose bibbs,

rubboards, or wind-turned mill wash. A swamp Yankee

and his jake leg wife above Rochester stodged up

scrapple, fire-burnt tunkup, and slack salted Pope's nose.

We popped it down with overproof lamp oil and everyone

was all in, plow shined. My mind was so jag skated,

I talked all my closed business like I was up a redwood

tree. Can't extract when my head clunked the sewed-rag

shuck bed. I night-woke bedfast with scarlet runners

beetling my bare flesh. Sweat runnelled and rilled

either side of my chest hillslopes. Heard hushed words

and realised they were studying to forlay me to sellers.

Morning I pretended to smudge along, then lit

out crow-quick past tumps and shadebark glades of

knurled hickory. On the final night, I met bullhorn

thunderheads throwing froth-smurred gulley washers

and stump-mover skies. I squinched and child-stivered

through teeming chizzly freshets that sizzled and gaffed me,

the mud water pooling the path's apron. Almost done in,

I saw America's back forty sproutland, sun-glimming

and drying after the rains had sugared-off. I went down

the ravine scoop smiling towards birlers and their floaty

Niagara chuck boats, waiting to river cross into Canaan.

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