AT THE GRAVE OF THE UNKNOWN AFRICAN
TWO round, cocoa faces, carved on whitewashed headstone,
protect your grave against hellfire and brimstone.
Those cherubs with puffed cheeks, as if chewing gum,
signal how you got here and where you came from.
More than two and a half centuries after your death,
the barefaced fact that you're unnamed feels like defeat.
I got here via White Ladies' Road and Black Boy's Hill,
clues lost in these lopsided stones that Henbury's vandal
helps to the ground and Henbury's conservationist
tries to rectify, cleaning the vandal's pissy love-nest.
African slave without a name, I'd call this home
by now. Would you? Your unknown soldier's tomb
stands for shipload after shipload that docked,
unloaded, watered, scrubbed, exercised and restocked
thousands more souls for sale in Bristol's port.
Cab-drivers speak of it all with yesterday's hurt.
The good conservationist calls it her 300-year war;
Those raids, deals, deceits and capture (a sore still raw).
St Paul's, Toxteth, Brixton, Tiger Bay and Handsworth:
petrol bombs flower in the middle of roads, a sudden growth
at the feet of police lines longer than any cricket pitch.
African slave, your namelessness is the wick and petrol mix.
Each generation catches the one fever love can't appease,
nor molotov cocktails, nor when they embrace in a peace
far from that three-named, two-bit vandal and conservationist
binning beer cans, condoms and headstones in big puzzle-pieces.
Stop there black Englishman before you tell a bigger lie.
You mean me well by what you say but I can't stand idly by.
The vandal who keeps coming and does what he calls fucks
on the cool gravestones also pillages and wrecks.
If he knew not so much my name but what happened to Africans,
he'd maybe put in an hour or two collecting his Heinekens;
like the good old conservationist, who's earned her column
inch, who you knock, who I love without knowing her name.
The dead can't write, nor can we sing (nor can most living).
Our ears (if you can call them ears) make no good listening.
Say what happened to me and countless like me, all anon.
Say it urgently. Mean times may bring back the water cannon.
I died young, but to age as a slave would have been worse.
What can you call me? Mohammed. Homer. Hannibal. Jesus.
Would it be too much to have them all? What are couples up to
when one reclines on the stones and is ridden by the other?
Will our talk excite the vandal? He woz ere, like you are now,
armed with a knife. I could see trouble on his creased brow,
love trouble, not for some girl but for this village.
I share his love and would have let him spoil my image,
if it wasn't for his blade in the shadow of the church wall
taking me back to my capture and long sail to Bristol,
then my sale on Black Boy's Hill and disease ending my days:
I sent a rumble up to his sole; he scooted, shocked and dazed.
Here the sentence is the wait and the weight is the sentence.
I've had enough of a parish where the congregation can't sing.
Take me where the hymns sound like a fountain-washed canary,
and the beer-swilling, condom-wielding vandal of Henbury
reclines on the stones and the conservationist mounts him,
and in my crumbly ears there's only the sound of them sinning.
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