blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Poems by Aaron Kramer

Below are three poems from Aaron Kramer’s 26-poem sequence “Denmark Vesey” (1952) about plans for an 1822 Charleston SC slave revolt, perhaps the most ambitious poem about African American history ever written by a white American. The entire poem is included in Wicked Times as is his deeply personal “To Himself” (1963).


How many days will it be,
oh how many days will it be?
I’ll count them, Lord, I know how to count.
How many days will it be?
Master’s alone with his gold,
old Master’s alone with his gold.
He counts it, Lord, he knows how to count
more than his hands can hold.
Lady’s gone shopping in town,
oh Lady’s gone shopping in town.
She’s counting, Lord, she knows how to count
jewels enough for a crown.
Overseer came with his whip,
mm, overseer came with his whip.
He counted, Lord, he knew how to count –
until my blood would drip.
How many days will it be,
oh how many days will it be?
I’ll count them, Lord, I know how to count
until my hands go free.


It took Vesey long to fall asleep that night.
Over and over he heard the minuet;
till – tossing and turning – he fell into a dream.
It was Col. Prioleau’s banqueting-room.
There stood the Colonel, bursting through his coat,
flanked by half the legislature of the State
all busily sampling and praising the food.
Instead of an ordinary meal, they had
young Negro bodies, baked to the bone.
Their fountain of wine was a Negro vein.
The lovely brocade their ladies wore
had once been Negro grandmothers’ hair.
The gems that blinked on their arms like stars
were bright Negro eyes that had lately shed tears.
The drummer was beating a broad Negro chest,
and, instead of on trumpets, the trumpeters placed
thin lips on the hole of a Negro throat
that made a lament of the minuet.
Now lightly, now heavily, dancers caroused
on black children’s faces: moaning and bruised –
while one slave kept bending to mop up the blood,
for which he received many pats on the head.
The Colonel smiled proudly up at his lamps:
they were Negro souls, which he’d bought for worn pants.
Now they saw Vesey – they were pointing at him!
“Not I!” he shrieked, and fled from the dream.


My leg is weak from the chains you wear;
my shoulders break at the load you bear;
my back is marked by your masters’ whips;
and from your wound my own blood drips. . . .
     But when you bow, my beautiful sisters,
     ah brothers, when you bow and beg,
     my heart wears chains – for those who bought you
     have shackled you both heart and leg.
     You look for freedom in the sky?
     Then chained you’ll live, and chained you’ll die!
     You seek in heaven the promised land?
     Then lost is the promise of your hand!
                Israel whimpered once in bondage –
               who listened? – and saw her bow?
                She cried aloud – and Pharaoh trembled!
                She rose – and what is Pharaoh now?
     Like Israel, brothers, let us be:
    wait not for God to set you free!
     Turn all your sobs to battle-cries:
     cry freedom! freedom! and arise. . . .


Finally it will not matter
how many kicked, how many kissed him—
how many rooms there were, how many rumors—
how many poisons were offered, or prizes—
how many salvos, how many silences.
It will mean nothing, nothing at all
whether anthologies nested his poems—
whether a critic called them bright birds—
whether they soared across heaven-smooth pages—
whether slumberers leapt at the tune.
Nothing will matter, nothing at all
except that his heart maintained its own beat,
his face its own hue, his foot its own thud,
his night its own vision, his soul its won heat,
his hand its own touch, his tongue its own word.
This will be all, on the day of days.
But meanwhile, what is a man to do—
a man, like everyone, flesh and blood?
How many times can he say to himself:
Hush, fool, hush! it will not matter,
not matter at all, not matter at all . . .


Return to Aaron Kramer