FORTUNE’S BONES: THE MANUMISSION REQUIEM

By Dr. Marilyn Nelson

 

I. Preface (spoken)

II. Funeral March (instrumental)

III. Dinah’s Lament (contralto)

IV. On Abrigador Hill (baritone I and choir)

V. Kyrie of the Bones (choir with solos)

VI. Not My Bones (baritone II with choir)

VII. Sanctus (choir)

 

    *Two additional sections are being created: the Deis Irae (sung by Fortune’s 4 children and a duet      between Fortune and his wife Dinah.  Both should be completed by 2017.

I. Preface

Fortune was born; he died. Between those truths

stretched years of drudgery, years of pit-deep sleep

in which he hauled and lifted, dug and plowed,

glimpsing the steep impossibility

of freedom. Fortune’s bones say he was strong;

they speak of cleared acres, miles of stone walls.

They say work broke his back: Before it healed,

they say, he suffered years of wrenching pain.

His wife was worth ten dollars. And their son

a hundred sixty-six. A man unmanned,

he must sometimes have waked with balled-up fists.

A white priest painted water on his head

with words he may or may not have believed,

whom Christ offered no respite, no reprieve,

only salvation. Fortune’s legacy

was his inheritance: the hopeless hope

of a people valued for their labor, not

for their ability to watch and dream

as vees of geese define fall evening skies.

Was Fortune bitter? Was he good or bad?

Did he sometimes throw back his head and laugh?

His bones say only that he served and died,

that he was useful, even into death,

Stripped of his name, his story, and his flesh.

 

II. Dinah’s Lament

Miss Lydia doesn’t clean the Doctor room.

She say she can’t go in that room: she scared.

She make me take the dust-rag and the broom

and clean around my husband, hanging there.

Since she seen Fortune head in that big pot

Miss Lydia say that room make her feel ill,

sick with the thought of boiling human broth.

I wonder how she think it make me feel?

To dust the hands what use to stroke my breast;

to dust the arms what hold me when I cried;

to dust where his soft lips were, and his chest

what curved its warm against my back at night.

Through every season, sun-up to star light,

I heft, scrub, knead: one black woman alone,

except for my children. The world so white,

nobody know my pain, but Fortune bones.

 

III. On Abrigador Hill

For fifty years my feeling hands

have practiced the bone-setter’s healing touch,

a gift inherited by Porter men.

I have manipulated joints,

cracked necks, and set my neighbors back to work.

I’ve bled and purged fever and flux,

inoculated for smallpox,

prescribed fresh air and vegetables,

cod-liver oil and laudanum,

and closed the lightless eyes of the new dead.

And I’ve been humbled by ignorance,

humbled by ignorance.

Herewith begins my dissection of

the former body of my former slave,

which served him who served me throughout his life,

and now serves the advance of science.

Note well how death softens the human skin,

making it almost transparent,

so that under my reverent knife -

the first cut takes my breath away,

it feels like cutting the whole world –

it falls open like bridal gossamer.

And I am humbled by ignorance,

humbled by ignorance.

 

Standing on a new continent

beyond the boundaries of nakedness,

I am forever changed by what I see:

the complex, delicate organs

fitted perfectly in their shelter of bones,

the striated and smooth muscles,

the beautiful integuments,

the genius-strokes of thumb and knee.

In profound and awful intimacy,

I enter Fortune, and he enters me.

And I am humbled by ignorance,

Humbled by ignorance.

 

IV. Kyrie of the Bones

1800 [baritone I]

I called him “Larry.” It was easier

to face him with an imaginary name.

For Fortune was an image of myself:

My fortune known, my face bare bone.

[choir]

Oh, Lord, have mercy.

Gentle Jesus, have mercy.

Have mercy, Lord.

1870 [tenor]

I say he was my great-grandfather’s slave,

who slipped and broke his neck on Larry’s Leap.

Dispassionate and curious his gaze,

patients tell me, from the corner.

[choir]

Oh, Lord, have mercy.

Gentle Jesus, have mercy.

Have mercy, Lord.

1890 [soprano]

We played in the attic on rainy afternoons:

Parcheesi, checkers. Or we took the skull

out of its wooden box, and with a leg

rolled it around the dusty floor.

[choir]

Oh, Lord, have mercy.

Gentle Jesus, have mercy.

Have mercy, Lord.

1890 [soprano]

We played in the attic on rainy afternoons:

Parcheesi, checkers. Or we took the skull

out of its wooden box, and with a leg

rolled it around the dusty floor.

[choir]

Oh, Lord, have mercy.

Gentle Jesus, have mercy.

Have mercy, Lord.

1907 [tenor]

I call a hey, Luigi, come a quick:

Look what was boarded up a in the wall!

We stand a with our caps over our hearts

and say an Ave Maria.

[choir]

Oh, Lord, have mercy.

Gentle Jesus, have mercy.

Have mercy, Lord.

1960 [soprano]

Our field-trip to the Mattatuck Museum

greatly impressed me. I’ll never forget

looking into my first love’s depthless eyes

right after we first saw Larry

(choir]

Oh, Lord, have mercy.

Gentle Jesus, have mercy.

Have mercy, Lord.

V. Not My Bones

I was not this body,

I was not these bones.

This skeleton was just my

temporary home.

Elementary molecules converged for a breath,

then danced on beyond my individual death.

And I am not my body,

I am not my body.

We are brief incarnations,

we are clouds in clothes.

We are water respirators,

we are how earth knows.

I bore light passed on from an original flame;

while it was in my hands it was called by my name.

But I am not my body,

I am not my body.

You can own a man’s body,

but you can’t own his mind.

That’s like making a bridle

to ride on the wind.

I will tell you one thing, and I’ll tell you true:

Life’s the best thing that can happen to you.

But you are not your body,

You are not your body.

You can own someone’s body,

but the soul runs free.

It roams the night sky’s

mute geometry.

You can murder hope, you can pound faith flat,

but, like weeds and wild-flowers, they grow right back.

For you are not your body,

you are not your body.

You are not your body,

you are not your bones.

What’s essential about you

is what can’t be owned.

What’s essential in you is your longing to raise

your itty-bitty voice in the cosmic praise.

For you are not your body,

you are not your body.

Well, I woke up this morning just so glad to be free,

glad to be free, glad to be free.

I woke up this morning in restful peace.

For I am not my body,

I am not my bones.

I am not my body,

I am not my bones.

I am not my bones.

 

VI. Sanctus

Holy of Holies, thy creating name

be raised above all barriers.

Each and every one of us is Fortune,

for a brief, mortal time.

Then we are compost.

Mother of all Holiness, cradle us

so we can hear the truth of your heartbeat.

Though we have wandered far, call us back home.

Eternal source of all identity,

call our true names when we forsake our bones.

Magnetic center of the universe,

make us iron filings.

Be to us what South is to autumn geese.

Call us home, Lord, call us home.

Call us home, Lord, call us home.