NEA Literature Fellowships

Cyrus Cassells

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(2005 - Poetry)

From The Gospel According To Wild Indigo

III. Caesars and Dreamers

The pharaohs of rice and indigo, the conniving
Caesars of cotton,

what were we to them?
Profitable: able

bodies from Barbados
and the Windward Coast,

the Rice Coast,
our souls ramshackle,

less than a rooster's
or a rock's.

And yet, in painstaking fields,
in joyous praise houses,

our tenacious "Go Down, Moses,"
our stirring, rallying

"In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea . . ."

might have served as proof
to those zealous Southern despots

that we possessed
some quilt scrap of God.

Go tell those greed-swayed
kings of sugar, those implacable

princes of tobacco,
how we garnered freedom

in our hardscrabble dreams,
sang it as sweat-drenched,

unshakable halleluiah,
whispered it as healing salve

to allay the defiling
stripes on our backs.

Unstinting overseer,
iron-eyed Caesar,

who better to define freedom
than a slave?

Cyrus Cassells is the author of four books of poetry: The Mud Actor, Soul Make a Path Through Shouting, Beautiful Signor, and More Than Peace and Cypresses. Among his honors are a Lannan Literary Award, a William Carlos Williams Award, a Pushcart Prize, two NEA grants, and a Lambda Literary Award. He is a tenured Associate Professor of English at Texas State University-San Marcos, and lives in Paris and Austin.

Photo by Allen Nomura

Author's Statement

My work is very deeply linked to my traveling, and my 2005 NEA grant kindly enabled me to visit Charleston to further my research into Gullah culture for my fifth volume, The Gospel according to Wild Indigo. I also traveled to Paris to give a reading and to work on a long poem about a gay Holocaust survivor; to Amsterdam to write about Anne Frank; and to Barcelona to work on two projects, Still Life With Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas, and Rider on the Back of Silence: Tribute to Salvador Espriu, a memoir (with translations) about the Catalan poet and Nobel candidate, whom I met shortly before his death in 1985. The biggest surprise for me was that the time and funds triggered my return to my Catalan translation work after two decades, and to writing about the World War II and the Holocaust, as I did in my second book, Soul Make a Path Through Shouting. It's been a watershed year for me as a writer (four projects at once!), and I'm deeply grateful to the NEA for its support.