In 2008 Arts Council England invited poets to commemorate the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by writing a poem on the theme of enslavement.
Jacob Sam-La Rose is a poet, educator and editor. A touring poet with the British Council, his debut pamphlet Communion was selected as the Poetry Book Society Choice for Autumn 2006. He manages a range of youth poetry initiatives.
There are a million grains in a 20 kilogram sack of rice.
Give or take. It's a hard enough number to imagine,
the kind that slips through the mind's fingers, like digging
your hands in that same sack, trying to feel
for individuals; the kind of counting that surpasses
fingers, bigger than the mind's computational eye,
like the full, unending girth of sky, like death,
the kind of threshold you concede
and take for granted. Imagine the sum
in eleven of those sacks, and I'm trying to find a way
to make that number real, like how many pots and how long
it might take to cook that much rice, and still retain the detail
of each swollen grain; a real, fleshy equation that might capture
the percentage of wastage, the amount that would fall
and be forgotten even while trying to keep count,
the appetite that might be necessary to take it all in.
In a lesson on trying to make the abstract more concrete,
one of my students, a Guyanese boy, late teens,
shares a draft in which he's counting
the breaths of his sleeping girlfriend.
He's met her father, shook his hand -
weeks later, the girl explains
that her Akan blood arrows back up to royalty,
that the boy is the son of a slave,
that there is no future for them, only a past.
I understand that the counting makes it easier,
lends a sense of a narrative, a march into the future
of something as simple as breath, in the face of something
so large it blots whatever light he'd been drawn by,
but it's not working, and as much as I try,
I can't suggest anything to make the poem any easier,
until he offers a resolution: a memory
of sitting on the sea wall in Georgetown, facing the Atlantic,
following the darts of sunlight riding the backs of waves,
wondering where each began, how each follows
the heels of another as they furl
towards wall or shore, how he can only understand
as much of it as his eye can drink in,
how the rest, for him, is a mystery.