Taylor GrahamListen

American Guest

And here I met a fellow-being and a fellow countryman,
with as good title to freedom as myself.
—Elihu Burritt's Journal, Nov. 27, 1846

Late November, London, guttering day-
light, you return to your unlit
room too cheap for comfort, to find

a stranger, darker shadow hunched
over the fire: jaws
too clenched to say his name: black

stowaway from a slave-block
in the mint-julep Home of the Free,

no, it's his ragged calico
that hangs coatwise, still dripping
bilge-green seawater in puddles.

Of your two overcoats, you offer him
the better, easing his locked
elbows into free sleeves.

Your old mournful hat, as well—
you've just bought yourself
a new one, and who on God's good earth

needs the luxury of two
of anything? A man travels lighter
for what he gives willingly away.


The old body lies naked
on a hospital bed. Its skin
is ashen with the blue tattoo
of veins; anklebone and elbow,
vertebrae like calibrations
down the spine, a chart
for anyone to read.

Doctor, nurses, daughter
and a creditor or two. Priest
arrives too late to cure
the septicemia of sin. At least
7000-plus commissions, as many
gentle acts omitted. Someone
asks how much, exactly,

was he worth? A lawyer
punches in the figures—
insolvency in digital display.
Unspoken shrift
of solitude. What angel
black or bright
comes to snatch this
soul away?



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