Poetry Explication

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“Slaveship” by Lucille Clifton

“Slaveship,” by Lucille Clifton, is a free verse poem from the perspective of slaves that the white men capture and trade in the slave trade, forcing them to travel on the Middle Passage. Ironically, the ships bear the names of religious symbols and figures such as Jesus, Angel of God, and Grace of God (lines 14-15) even though the act of slavery is one of the most sinful systems in the eyes of these slaves and in the eyes of all decent human beings. Though a myriad of Lucille Clifton’s poetry is about survival, the people in the ships have barely survived, but more importantly, though many of them have not, a significant amount did despite the fetid, deadly, inhumane conditions. Lines 1-5 illustrate the terrible conditions of the ship in which the slaves are crammed, “loaded like spoons," in the deep holds or “bellies” of these ships. They are crowded in there so tightly that they have to suffer in their own sweat and stink, unable to get clean, and probably unable to defecate anywhere besides on themselves and those beside them. Although the slaves pray, and they are traveling in ships with holy names, there is no answer to their prayers. The slaves ask Jesus repetitively, why he is not protecting them from these men. (Lines 6-7) They also have some furious, passionate prayers that they do not say aloud because they are “hot and red,” just like their chained ankles. (Line 10) In the poem, it is evident that the conditions of the ship are so inhumane because along with not being able to move or breathe well, their ankles bear chains. Even though the ship that transports the slaves in is named Angel, (line 8) the fact that they are chained to it brings the feeling of hopelessness to the poem despite the fact that Angels are supposed to bring grace and glory The slaves wonder if the men who captured them can even be real men: “can these be men

who vomit us out from ships
called Jesus Angel Grace of God
onto a heathen...
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