Five poems from “Printer’s Fist”

William Lloyd Garrison Apprentices as a Printer’s Devil at the Newburyport Herald, 1818

BOY WANTED for the Herald: to stoke fires,
to sweep floors, to stir the oily ink-kettles
as if a hundred soot-and-varnish devils
were upon him. Boy wanted, indentures
only. Should be thirteen and desperate,
no room for him at home, his mother
pious but consumptive, his father
dead from drink. Should not be late.
Boy needed who is quick to sort a case
of type, who sets his tongue with every click
of lead in the composing stick.
Preferred: the gospels burning in his face.
Boy wanted who can learn how paper can be pressed,
how an empty hand can make a printer’s fist.



David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World Goes South, 1829

An empty hand can make a printer’s fist
to point due south—where Walker sent
his pamphlets, here six, there a hundred, twelve cents
(or free to anyone who couldn’t pay the cost).
Sailors, mailmen, barkeeps, and runaways passed
the tracts from hand to hand, the call REPENT
and the call to fight in tiny print,
fanning along the coast, then inching west.
God will hurl tyrants into atoms—the God
of battles, it said. We will root them out
from the very face of the earth. Ought
they not to be destroyed? Read aloud
or confiscated and burned, the paper hissed,
“Are there ears to hear? Brethren, will you enlist?”



The Year Garrison Issued the Call in the Liberator, 1831

I will be heard, he wrote. He wrote, Enlist!
In Virginia, Nat Turner waited in the corn.
In Philadelphia, Sarah Forten
wrote a poem. In New York, David Ruggles crossed
free-produce sugar off his stockist’s list.
In Ohio, John Rankin hung a lantern;
in Boston, Maria Stewart approached the lectern;
in Indiana, Catharine Coffin cooked breakfast
for fugitives. In Baltimore, in Michigan,
in Connecticut, they weren’t waiting for the call;
in Delaware, in D. C., at Niagara Falls,
at the country’s fringe, or at its hinge, begun;
they heard, and kept doing, or heard, and did more—
with and without funding, with and without fear.



Frederick Douglass Publishes the First Issue of the North Star, 1847

The North Star isn’t like any other star
of the press. The evening star is too late,
the morning star is too early; we are at midnight,
and we need a light. What you suffer,
we suffer; what you endure, we endure.
The man struck is the man to cry out;
as Rev. Cornish says, we have a right
to plead our own cause. Truth is of no color—
but our white friends will understand
that we are one with yourselves, and of yourselves.
We’ve been with you in the fields and at the wharves.
My oppressed countrymen, ours is a new kind
of light. It is for you, who can and cannot read—
you who are witnesses in this house of blood.



William Wells Brown Compiles, Publishes, and Performs from the Songster The Anti-Slavery Harp, 1848

He was a witness in that house of blood
and so he sings about it, his baritone
navigating a river you’ve never seen
but now can hear. A song can be a flood.
He expects you to sing along, for brotherhood,
for sisterhood, for a world without a chain.
But there’s a song he doesn’t sing, even when alone.
In it there’s a boat, a whip, his mother, God.
That will be joyful, joyful, when Slavery is no more.
His songs will be unsung then—bless the day.
For now, the price is just twelve cents. Buy
a copy for yourself, and some to share,
because every movement needs a song—
but for how long, everlasting Lord? How long?



These poems are part of a sonnet crown entitled “Printer’s Fist.” Italicized text in the poems is derived from archival sources.