Tracy K. Smith: Photo of Sugar Cane Plantation Workers, Jamaica, 1891

May 6, 2014

For Kara Walker’s first large-scale public project, A Subtlety…, presented by Creative Time at Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory, Creative Time Reports features poetry, prose and illustrations related to central themes of Walker’s exhibition. Below, poet Tracy K. Smith responds to a historic photograph of Jamaican sugar plantation workers.

Tracy K. Smith

Sugar cane cutters in Jamaica, 1891. Photo by Valentine and Sons.

I would be standing there, too,
Standing, then made to leap up
Into the air, made to curl
And heave and cringe and
I would want to live so badly
I would wreck myself trying to
Cradle that speck of something
That speck that weighs and sits
And turns and grows and
Cries out to itself cries out
Lord! or No! I would be
Standing there like those men
Or bent down like that woman
Bent in half in the foreground
And I would pray oh I would pray
To my hands and to the god
Of cane and of shade and of
All that is taller than us.

The sky
That caps them is spiked with stalks.
No one talks. They stare
At a man I cannot see, whose gaze
Has conjured me. It is he
Who told them to stand—and
Told that one woman to drop
Back to her work so we might
Scrutinize the cut leaves
That bury her feet. A man’s mouth
Open, mute as halved fruit.
All that is said without breath
Or pitch. What lives blind
To that high white sky.
What tunnels and creeps—
An itch beneath the skin,
The names of distant kin—
Eluding the man and me
And our camera’s greedy lens.

Read more pieces related to the themes Kara Walker explores in A Subtlety: Edwidge Danticat: “The Price of Sugar,” Ricardo Cortés: “The Act of Whitening,” Shailja Patel: “Unpour” and Jean-Euphèle Milcé: “To Drink My Sweet Body.”