ChickenBones: A Journal

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He needed a scribe to re-mark pages— / tales dispersed at home & afar—a means
for his reentry to the human fold. / His vision of Christ was unforgiving.



12 Sonnets in Memory of Nathaniel Turner 

Poet & Prophet of Southampton

By Rudolph Lewis


On 11 November (a Friday at high noon), 179 years ago (1831), Nathaniel Turner, the son of an African woman and his master Benjamin Turner, was executed by the state of Virginia for his leadership of a revolt against slavery in the town of Cross Keys in Southampton County, Virginia.

There has been much that has been written about Turner and his life, much that undermines his integrity and dignity and the truth of his life. I have over the last few months attempted to write a series of sonnets that explore his life, his work, and his vision.

We think this series of 12 poems may be an excellent means of teaching Turner's life and the role he played in reforming religion and political democracy in America. It is our desire to publish these poems as a chapbook for broad distribution. We now solicit your support in this project. Make your checks out to ChickenBones: A Journal and send your donations to the following address:

ChickenBones: A Journal / 2005 Arabian Drive / Finksburg, MD 21048

Rudolph Lewis, Founding Editor

ChickenBones: A Journal

Loving That Other Man


Former-slaves built Jerusalem with hard

labor. But for their children today it

is no sanctuary from misery.

Fog thickens after a day of showers

& revelations. A full moon rises high.

Nathaniel Turner knew such an evening

as his Day of Reckoning came nearer

during August Revival. Like Baldwin

he knew men turn away from true being

for fleshly ecstasy—incest, & pride

in the marketing of hearts & souls—all 

for small comforts & manliness. I am

no naturalist. I know evil when

discovered wears the mask that glumly grins.

11 August 2006

*   *   *   *   *

Sonnet for 22 August 1831


If we slipped away unknown into dark

forests often as black men did so long

ago in secret coves like Booze Island

in the Loco woods & converse in tongues

dine on dripping hot roast pig, smoking yams

with moonshine & brandy, we could win all.

Nobody will know what we put down or

the cross we pick up. A faith communion

will fuel acts heroic—sacrificial.

Beyond our master’s grasp & driver’s whip,

free of fears & reckonings, wingéd flights

across the dark purple skies will birth a

bold love & a daring defiance. For

seven determined men can rock the world.


23 August 2006

*   *   *   *   *

Rivers Run Into Oceans


More than a month of dangerous nights in

the dark forest had come & gone since his

six men fell to bullets or from the rope.

Wooly heads without eyelids rested on

pikes at plantation crossroads; skeletons

left as signs of those pleasures taken by

fastidious insects, birds, dogs & men

lay in the woods—mothers, fathers, babies.

Those terrible hours on cool autumn days

still haunt their kinsmen after almost two

centuries. We’re under fence rails concealed

in a cave with God—tears fall for the dead.

The minstrel moments of servitude pass

as we embrace our turn for martyrdom.


28 September 2006

*   *   *   *   *

Meditations on the Moons


He hides out in the forest of Cross Keys

alone. The carnage has ended—only

sullen silence remains. The 2nd moon

since August Revival comes into view


from behind dark clouds. It’s not loneliness

or his belly that drives him to spy out

farmhouses nightly. He listens at doors

& windows. Darkness fills the candlelit


rooms. Masters have rekindled their slavish

routines: truth remains twisted as grapevines.

Soft breezes are in the autumn leaves. He

knows his work’s unfinished: he must rescue


sacramental blood that fell to earth by

sacrificing himself on the 3rd moon.


6 October 2006


*   *   *   *   *

Wanted Alive, Not Dead
He knew his blood must fall to earth like red
dew from heaven on leaves of corn. This debt
due he had to pay. The community
he loved would thrash him like wheat all along
the route—whips with nails; needle punctures; feet
fists thudding on yellow flesh; curses hurled.
This torment he must endure for their sake.
Cross Keys wanted to know the origins—
dust storming brigands on horseback hacking
away at white flesh—men, women, children.
He needed a scribe to re-mark pages—
tales dispersed at home & afar—a means
for his reentry to the human fold.
His vision of Christ was unforgiving.
 20 October 2006

*   *   *   *   *

Crickets Sing His Song


Clouds thicken dark over Jerusalem.

Winds come & go. A gust—pines dance, their limbs

of green needles sweeping the air. A breeze

in the pear tree shimmers the yellow leaves like

sweet love flesh. Crickets chirp by my window.

In his cell, the moon will not shine for him tonight


nor will stars twinkle through the jailhouse bars.

This is his second night in prison chained—

wrist & ankles. He desires no escape.

This was the destiny he freely chose.


His ruse was at work, & Mr. Tom Gray

had bought into his scheme—his visions shall

be broadcast near & far. His final sword

thrust into the Serpent is his death song.


31 October 2006

*   *   *   *   *

Drowning Noise with Silence


His mind moves to its fullness like the moon

that glows purple in his dark cell. He prays

without cease. He tracks back over the ground,

the metaphysical turf & prologue


he traversed after Thomas Gray stepped from

the autumn sun to the chirping chorus

of crickets crashing leaves by his window.

He thanks God he’s not like his white father


who sought to resolve slavery between

white sheets. . . . The pen waits to drum out echoes

of dead bones  in the shadows of madness. . . .

His tale is silent beats bleeding the stink


of church men—their death stamp on holiness.

His gospel blues won’t hang on rotting trees.


2 November 2006


*   *   *   *   *

Eyes Bound to Lies


The near full moon set & rose behind clouds

on his 2nd  interview. The crickets

were silent. The chilled air sharpened his mind

sharper than the razor edge of his sword.


His voyage through this hell was near complete.

The setting sun shone bright & cast shadows

through the bars onto Gray’s pen & paper.

In blue eyes the slaughter of children made


him blacker than a million sinister

midnights—children who’ll never sing sunlight

in the mad luxury of their whiteness.

This unholy fantasy stilled his heart.


He had crossed that Nottoway years ago:

black life falling, ever falling like leaves.


3 November 2006


*   *   *   *   *


Dying Echoes of Dead Words


This full moon frost night he will leave his cell

slipping from chains/shackles, like dirty clothes

& stroll the woods where the Spirit who speaks

to prophets—chastens men to sacrifice.


Hunting dogs will sense his haunting presence

whimper in their pens fearing his grandeur.

He will pass through fields of boll-filled white fleece

in purple light. Shadowed tombstones, symbols


of nigger luck, gained on black backs & blood:

owl wisdom will sound darkness with “Who? Whoooo?”

His father lies there. Fires will blaze tonight.

Smoke from chimneys will bellow to the stars.


They sleep cozy now with doom at their door.

Small rainbows glisten from the morning lawn.


4 November 2006


*   *   *   *   *


Birthed in a Conundrum


The heaven purples with stars twinkling clear

above this autumn forest. No sound stirs

this cold full moon silence. Frost thickens white

on leaves & grass in the blue hours before


midnight. He reads again Gray’s “Confessions.”

He sleeps soundly without dreams. Mockingbird

sings a sun overture. Jailers march him

from his cell. At the courthouse crows rally.


Icy-faced judges are suffused with guilt.

Their cave eyes are horror without remorse

. . .  mouths rusty hinges  that open & close.

This dark mirror mystery outrageous


is beyond their scalpels. They are losers—

his righteous spirit blossoms yet from thorns.


5 November 2006

*   *   *   *   *

Blues in the Cosmos


A star falls in the southern sky. Dogs bark

at the rising of the moon. The seasons

flip through the calendar pages quickly.

First the glow of autumn, then frost, showers


& then I’m sweating. The earth is soaked in

cosmic tears of joy & despair. The noose

shapes our destiny. Crickets sing. Rooster

crows before daybreak. Naked vibrations!


These are witnesses, a greater audience

than he who walks. They are no clockmaker

withdrawn, sightless, uncaring of a work

begun at eternity’s beginning.


We don’t come/go without signifying.

We’re healed when Mockingbird sings in the sun.


9 November 2006


*   *   *   *   *


40 Days & 40 Nights


We hovel, we slaves, trembling. It’s been weeks

since the sun shone clear, or the rising moon

appeared through the trees, when dew drops fell on

the blown, un-bagged brown leaves. It keeps raining.


The water keeps rising—the rain keeps falling.

They should’ve known, we all should’ve known, it’s no

routine stroll—picnic to hang a prophet,

a holy man, even Ben Turner’s boy.


The vault of heaven turned black, clouds & winds

gathered—the black sky cracked, the earth rumbled

when he fell from the rope and hung still like

a scarecrow. In fright the gathering scattered.


The surgeons keep busy with their scalpels

while we wade gospel waters of end time.


10 November 2006

*   *   *   *   *

Slave leader's Bible given to museum18 February 2012For a century, the descendants of one of Virginia's oldest families have kept a Bible that connected them to Nat Turner, the slave who led the bloodiest slave revolt in American history. Maurice Person, a descendant of people who were killed during the Turner rebellion, and his stepdaughter, Wendy Porter, decided to give the small Bible to the National Museum of African American History and Culture."It didn't have the home it deserved. It needed to be in a place where it could be seen," Porter said.

Members of Person's family and the Francis family were among the estimated 55 white Virginians killed by Turner and his followers. One of the family members, Lavinia Francis, was hidden by the Francises' house slaves. The gift launched an investigation by museum experts to pinpoint the Bible's origins. They knew its provenance—kept in the courthouse after Turner's trial and execution in 1831. When Virginia's Southampton County Courthouse was being renovated in 1912, an official asked the Person family whether it wanted Turner's Bible. Person's father, Walter, accepted the book and displayed it on the family piano for many years. Later, the family put it in a safe-deposit box. . . .

Even with the ownership clear, the museum did its due diligence. A photograph of the Bible, identified as Turner's, was taken in 1900 and is part of the archives at the University of Virginia. An affidavit in 1969 by Harriet E. Francis, a descendant of Lavinia Francis, is also part of the university archives.

Nora Lockshin, a paper conservator for the Smithsonian Institution Archives, examined the paper, leather, ink and arrangement of the pages. The book, which is a little larger than pocket-size, is missing both covers, part of its spine and one chapter. Its pages are yellowed, and there are watermarks and mold. Because of its age, it cannot be opened flat. "The paper is in good shape, and it is a good, strong rag paper," Lockshin said. She enhanced the 1900 photograph, matching the page in the photo to a page in the book. "It matched the pattern of stains." With the Turner Bible, Bunch said, the museum will tell many stories about the resistance to slavery and the compassion of slaves.—NewsLeader 

*   *   *   *   *

Nathaniel Turner

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

*   *   *   *   *

Nathaniel Turner, the Bible, & the Sword

A  Reconsideration of the 1831 “Confessions”

 By Rudolph Lewis

Biblical Scholars, Theologians & Other Commentators

on Nathaniel Turner of Southampton

Compiled by Rudolph Lewis


Nathaniel of Southampton or Balaam’s Ass

God’s Revelations in the Virginia Wilderness

 By Rudolph Lewis

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Life on Mars

By Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection's "lyric brilliance" and "political impulses [that] never falter." A New York Times review stated, "Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we're alone in the universe; it's to accept—or at least endure—the universe's mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith's pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant." Life on Mars follows Smith's 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet's second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans. The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection.

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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