Dear Moses Grandy, …Love, the Great Dismal Swamp

Ariana Benson

“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, 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, 1843

I send men swarms of insects in the shape of your ghost.They are not wrong to think me haunted, possessed as I amby spirits exhumed from bodies left strewn in my wake. I trickthem into thinking me God, but to them I am Eden, wickedparadise of poison, fruit and beasts. I steep sweat from acridflesh, 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 turna rich maroon hue, and I remember you fondly, longingfor nights when there was nothing but you and me, twilight’s ichorand wind quivering in my reeds—a southern serenade. I hopeyou knew I heard the song of your silence, your heartbeatcamouflaged in the thrumming pulse of mine. Now, they smeltmolten asphalt into my arteries, litter the air with my ashes. I watchmyself burn and search for your face in the flames. I knew youthen as amalgam of marsh and man, sometimes just tar-blackbeads sunk into star-white glow—your eyes glinting in the glassof my stillness. Under the cover of dusk you snuck nips of rawhoneysuckle, 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 pleasureof being parted by your hands. I ache for the long-ago dayswhen your vessel’s crest gently unzipped my quiet mirelike 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.

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Headshot of Ariana Benson

Ariana Benson is a southern Black ecopoet. Their debut collection, Black Pastoral (University of Georgia Press, 2023) won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Books Critics Circle Leonard Prize. A Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, Benson has also received the Furious Flower Poetry Prize and the Graybeal Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets. Benson earned her MFA at Washington University in St. Louis, and also holds Masters of Arts degrees in both Poetic Practice and Scriptwriting, which she earned as a Marshall Scholar. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in POETRY Magazine, Ploughshares, Poem-a-Day, the Yale Review, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Through her writing, she strives to fashion vignettes of Blackness that speak to its infinite depth and richness.

Cover of "Black Pastoral"

Athens, Georgia

University of Georgia

Black Pastoral is not playing nice. In this landscape, even sweetness stings. On every page you'll stumble over an image, a line, a truth, that will take your breath away. These poems refuse to paint ‘nature’ as a beautiful, healing space untouched by human hungers, violences, and losses. Ariana Benson uses all the linguistic wizardry, emotional honesty, and formal dazzle at her disposal to bring us the fields and forests as she finds them: colonized, exploited, but still wild, and filled with what history has made Blackness mean.
—Evie Shockley, author of semiautomatic

Lucille Clifton wonders, when writing about trees, 'why/ is there under that poem always/ an other poem? Ariana Benson answers Clifton in Black Pastoral with a series of poems that see the land as both dungeon against and co-conspirator to Black freedom. In poems blossoming into traditional and nonce forms, where the Black imagination is a reluctant crypt, Benson writes, 'There are some trees—the black mangrove, the longleaf pine—that cannot bear the loneliness of touch.' These poems touch the ancestors with love and witness.
—Phillip B. Williams, author of Mutiny

Boll weevil and blessing, spade and sweet field, tulip and tobacco; all these and more thrive miraculously, rivered through Benson's Black Pastoral, a luminous forest of aubade, elegy, and voracious vision. These vibrant and stunning poems take us from indigo-pitted Cape Coast passages to sticky-knuckled oil spills with awe, insight, and an earthen solemnity. Here is a pastoral Blackened, billowing, heaved with history and blooming throughout with the possibility of a myriad of answers to the question what has apocalypse taught us/ but how to live/ unwholly?
—Tyehimba Jess, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning Olio

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