Louisa County Patrol Claims, 1770–1863
I pry open the files, still packed
with liquor & strange brine.
Midnight seeps from the cracks
slow pulp of arithmetic. Four or five
or six at a time, the white men draw
along the Gordonsville Road, on foot
or on horseback, clustered close—
each man counting up his hours, the knife
of each man’s tongue at the hinge
of his own mouth. For ninety-three years
& every time I slip away to read
those white men line the roadway
secreting themselves in the night air
feeding & breathing in their private
column. Why belly up to their pay stubs
scraping my teeth on the chipped flat of each page?
This dim drink only blights meCopyright © 2020 by Kiki Petrosino. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 4, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
but I do it.
“I composed this piece after studying the so-called ‘Free Negro and Slave Records’ of the rural county where some of my African-American ancestors lived. Within this eclectic archive of handwritten documents was an entire folder marked ‘Patrol Claims.’ The folder contained no stories or statements, only receipts naming the white men who had patrolled the county roads, the number of hours they worked, and the money they were to be paid for their time. I realized that these seemingly dry, impersonal records were actually at the heart of slavery’s horror: the constant surveillance, by white men, of all people of color within a locality. My poem uses oysters as a conceit to capture this feeling of dreadful discovery; how it feels to pry open a dark hinge of the past.”—Kiki Petrosino
The heart of slavery’s horror: the constant surveillance, by white men, of all people of color within a locality.
In cities, at least, we are today constantly under surveillance. Ultimately under the direction of white men, though a diversity perform the hands on work.
They do a much better job of hiding the cameras now, but we know they are there anyway. You can feel the mechanical eyes on you. Those robotic patrols now log each of us, who we are, where we have been, where we are going, who have have met. Facial recognition imprisoning us by invisible fences. Like those used for dogs in the yard.
Never again a protest allowed. The camera sees you, software recognizes you, robots come to take you away.
Among the myriad effects of the pandemic, might it save us from this?