Douglass Excerpt 1

“He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer. With that, he strove to drag me to a stick that was lying just out of the stable door. He meant to knock me down. But just as he was leaning over to get the stick, I seized him with both hands by his collar, and brought him by a sudden snatch to the ground. By this time, Bill came. Covey called upon him for assistance. Bill wanted to know what he could do. Covey said, “Take hold of him, take hold of him!” Bill said his master hired him out to work, and not to help to whip me; so he left Covey and myself to fight our own battle out. We were at it for nearly two hours. Covey at length let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The truth was, that he had not whipped me at all. I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. He would occasionally say, he didn’t want to get hold of me again. “No,” thought I, “you need not; for you will come off worse than you did before.”

“This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

“From this time I was never again what might be called fairly whipped, though I remained a slave four years afterwards. I had several fights, but was never whipped.”

The Liberation of Frederick Douglass

From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Master would keep this lacerated young woman tied up in this horrid situation four or five hours at a time. I have known him to tie her up early in the morning, and whip her before breakfast; leave her, go to his store, return at dinner, and whip her again, cutting her in the places already made raw with his cruel lash. The secret of master’s cruelty toward “Henny” is found in the fact of her being almost helpless. When quite a child, she fell into the fire, and burned herself horribly. Her hands were so burnt that she never got the use of them. She could do very little but bear heavy burdens. She was to master a bill of expense; and as he was a mean man, she was a constant offence to him. He seemed desirous of getting the poor girl out of existence. He gave her away once to his sister; but, being a poor gift, she was not disposed to keep her. Finally, my benevolent master, to use his own words, “set her adrift to take care of herself.” Here was a recently-converted man, holding on upon the mother, and at the same time turning out her helpless child, to starve and die! Master Thomas was one of the many pious slaveholders who hold slaves for the very charitable purpose of taking care of them.

My master and myself had quite a number of differences. He found me unsuitable to his purpose. My city life, he said, had had a very pernicious effect upon me. It had almost ruined me for every good purpose, and fitted me for every thing which was bad. One of my greatest faults was that of letting his horse run away, and go down to his father-in-law’s farm, which was about five miles from St. Michael’s. I would then have to go after it. My reason for this kind of carelessness, or carefulness, was, that I could always get something to eat when I went there. Master William Hamilton, my master’s father-in-law, always gave his slaves enough to eat. I never left there hungry, no matter how great the need of my speedy return. Master Thomas at length said he would stand it no longer. I had lived with him nine months, during which time he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose. He resolved to put me out, as he said, to be broken; and, for this purpose, he let me for one year to a man named Edward Covey. Mr. Covey was a poor man, a farm-renter. He rented the place upon which he lived, as also the hands with which he tilled it. Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him. It enabled him to get his farm tilled with much less expense to himself than he could have had it done without such a reputation. Some slaveholders thought it not much loss to allow Mr. Covey to have their slaves one year, for the sake of the training to which they were subjected, without any other compensation. He could hire young help with great ease, in consequence of this reputation. Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion—a pious soul—a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. All of this added weight to his reputation as a “nigger-breaker.” I was aware of all the facts, having been made acquainted with them by a young man who had lived there. I nevertheless made the change gladly; for I was sure of getting enough to eat, which is not the smallest consideration to a hungry man.


I had left Master Thomas’s house, and went to live with Mr. Covey, on the 1st of January, 1833. I was now, for the first time in my life, a field hand. In my new employment, I found myself even more awkward than a country boy appeared to be in a large city. I had been at my new home but one week before Mr. Covey gave me a very severe whipping, cutting my back, causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on my flesh as large as my little finger. The details of this affair are as follows: Mr. Covey sent me, very early in the morning of one of our coldest days in the month of January, to the woods, to get a load of wood. He gave me a team of unbroken oxen. He told me which was the in-hand ox, and which the off-hand one. He then tied the end of a large rope around the horns of the in-hand ox, and gave me the other end of it, and told me, if the oxen started to run, that I must hold on upon the rope. I had never driven oxen before, and of course I was very awkward. I, however, succeeded in getting to the edge of the woods with little difficulty; but I had got a very few rods into the woods, when the oxen took fright, and started full tilt, carrying the cart against trees, and over stumps, in the most frightful manner. I expected every moment that my brains would be dashed out against the trees. After running thus for a considerable distance, they finally upset the cart, dashing it with great force against a tree, and threw themselves into a dense thicket. How I escaped death, I do not know. There I was, entirely alone, in a thick wood, in a place new to me. My cart was upset and shattered, my oxen were entangled among the young trees, and there was none to help me. After a long spell of effort, I succeeded in getting my cart righted, my oxen disentangled, and again yoked to the cart. I now proceeded with my team to the place where I had, the day before, been chopping wood, and loaded my cart pretty heavily, thinking in this way to tame my oxen. I then proceeded on my way home. I had now consumed one half of the day. I got out of the woods safely, and now felt out of danger. I stopped my oxen to open the woods gate; and just as I did so, before I could get hold of my ox-rope, the oxen again started, rushed through the gate, catching it between the wheel and the body of the cart, tearing it to pieces, and coming within a few inches of crushing me against the gate-post. Thus twice, in one short day, I escaped death by the merest chance. On my return, I told Mr. Covey what had happened, and how it happened. He ordered me to return to the woods again immediately. I did so, and he followed on after me. Just as I got into the woods, he came up and told me to stop my cart, and that he would teach me how to trifle away my time, and break gates. He then went to a large gum-tree, and with his axe cut three large switches, and, after trimming them up neatly with his pocketknife, he ordered me to take off my clothes. I made him no answer, but stood with my clothes on. He repeated his order. I still made him no answer, nor did I move to strip myself. Upon this he rushed at me with the fierceness of a tiger, tore off my clothes, and lashed me till he had worn out his switches, cutting me so savagely as to leave the marks visible for a long time after. This whipping was the first of a number just like it, and for similar offences.

I lived with Mr. Covey one year. During the first six months, of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me. I was seldom free from a sore back. My awkwardness was almost always his excuse for whipping me. We were worked fully up to the point of endurance. Long before day we were up, our horses fed, and by the first approach of day we were off to the field with our hoes and ploughing teams. Mr. Covey gave us enough to eat, but scarce time to eat it. We were often less than five minutes taking our meals. We were often in the field from the first approach of day till its last lingering ray had left us; and at saving-fodder time, midnight often caught us in the field binding blades.

Covey would be out with us. The way he used to stand it, was this. He would spend the most of his afternoons in bed. He would then come out fresh in the evening, ready to urge us on with his words, example, and frequently with the whip. Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.” When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!” This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St. Michael’s, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves. He would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. Again, he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as though he was upon the point of starting on a long journey, turn his back upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready; and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and crawl into a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch us till the going down of the sun.

Mr. Covey’s forte consisted in his power to deceive. His life was devoted to planning and perpetrating the grossest deceptions. Every thing he possessed in the shape of learning or religion, he made conform to his disposition to deceive. He seemed to think himself equal to deceiving the Almighty. He would make a short prayer in the morning, and a long prayer at night; and, strange as it may seem, few men would at times appear more devotional than he. The exercises of his family devotions were always commenced with singing; and, as he was a very poor singer himself, the duty of raising the hymn generally came upon me. He would read his hymn, and nod at me to commence. I would at times do so; at others, I would not. My non-compliance would almost always produce much confusion. To show himself independent of me, he would start and stagger through with his hymn in the most discordant manner. In this state of mind, he prayed with more than ordinary spirit. Poor man! such was his disposition, and success at deceiving, I do verily believe that he sometimes deceived himself into the solemn belief, that he was a sincere worshipper of the most high God; and this, too, at a time when he may be said to have been guilty of compelling his woman slave to commit the sin of adultery. The facts in the case are these: Mr. Covey was a poor man; he was just commencing in life; he was only able to buy one slave; and, shocking as is the fact, he bought her, as he said, for a breeder. This woman was named Caroline. Mr. Covey bought her from Mr. Thomas Lowe, about six miles from St. Michael’s. She was a large, able-bodied woman, about twenty years old. She had already given birth to one child, which proved her to be just what he wanted. After buying her, he hired a married man of Mr. Samuel Harrison, to live with him one year; and him he used to fasten up with her every night! The result was, that, at the end of the year, the miserable woman gave birth to twins. At this result Mr. Covey seemed to be highly pleased, both with the man and the wretched woman. Such was his joy, and that of his wife, that nothing they could do for Caroline during her confinement was too good, or too hard, to be done. The children were regarded as being quite an addition to his wealth.

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree. At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished. I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear. My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.

Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships:—

“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom. The steamboats steered in a north-east course from North Point. I will do the same; and when I get to the head of the bay, I will turn my canoe adrift, and walk straight through Delaware into Pennsylvania. When I get there, I shall not be required to have a pass; I can travel without being disturbed. Let but the first opportunity offer, and, come what will, I am off. Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in the world. Why should I fret? I can bear as much as any of them. Besides, I am but a boy, and all boys are bound to some one. It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming.”

Thus I used to think, and thus I used to speak to myself; goaded almost to madness at one moment, and at the next reconciling myself to my wretched lot.

I have already intimated that my condition was much worse, during the first six months of my stay at Mr. Covey’s, than in the last six. The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey’s course toward me form an epoch in my humble history. You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man. On one of the hottest days of the month of August, 1833, Bill Smith, William Hughes, a slave named Eli, and myself, were engaged in fanning wheat. Hughes was clearing the fanned wheat from before the fan. Eli was turning, Smith was feeding, and I was carrying wheat to the fan. The work was simple, requiring strength rather than intellect; yet, to one entirely unused to such work, it came very hard. About three o’clock of that day, I broke down; my strength failed me; I was seized with a violent aching of the head, attended with extreme dizziness; I trembled in every limb. Finding what was coming, I nerved myself up, feeling it would never do to stop work. I stood as long as I could stagger to the hopper with grain. When I could stand no longer, I fell, and felt as if held down by an immense weight. The fan of course stopped; every one had his own work to do; and no one could do the work of the other, and have his own go on at the same time.

Mr. Covey was at the house, about one hundred yards from the treading-yard where we were fanning. On hearing the fan stop, he left immediately, and came to the spot where we were. He hastily inquired what the matter was. Bill answered that I was sick, and there was no one to bring wheat to the fan. I had by this time crawled away under the side of the post and rail-fence by which the yard was enclosed, hoping to find relief by getting out of the sun. He then asked where I was. He was told by one of the hands. He came to the spot, and, after looking at me awhile, asked me what was the matter. I told him as well as I could, for I scarce had strength to speak. He then gave me a savage kick in the side, and told me to get up. I tried to do so, but fell back in the attempt. He gave me another kick, and again told me to rise. I again tried, and succeeded in gaining my feet; but, stooping to get the tub with which I was feeding the fan, I again staggered and fell. While down in this situation, Mr. Covey took up the hickory slat with which Hughes had been striking off the half-bushel measure, and with it gave me a heavy blow upon the head, making a large wound, and the blood ran freely; and with this again told me to get up. I made no effort to comply, having now made up my mind to let him do his worst. In a short time after receiving this blow, my head grew better. Mr. Covey had now left me to my fate. At this moment I resolved, for the first time, to go to my master, enter a complaint, and ask his protection. In order to do this, I must that afternoon walk seven miles; and this, under the circumstances, was truly a severe undertaking. I was exceedingly feeble; made so as much by the kicks and blows which I received, as by the severe fit of sickness to which I had been subjected. I, however, watched my chance, while Covey was looking in an opposite direction, and started for St. Michael’s. I succeeded in getting a considerable distance on my way to the woods, when Covey discovered me, and called after me to come back, threatening what he would do if I did not come. I disregarded both his calls and his threats, and made my way to the woods as fast as my feeble state would allow; and thinking I might be overhauled by him if I kept the road, I walked through the woods, keeping far enough from the road to avoid detection, and near enough to prevent losing my way. I had not gone far before my little strength again failed me. I could go no farther. I fell down, and lay for a considerable time. The blood was yet oozing from the wound on my head. For a time I thought I should bleed to death; and think now that I should have done so, but that the blood so matted my hair as to stop the wound. After lying there about three quarters of an hour, I nerved myself up again, and started on my way, through bogs and briers, barefooted and bareheaded, tearing my feet sometimes at nearly every step; and after a journey of about seven miles, occupying some five hours to perform it, I arrived at master’s store. I then presented an appearance enough to affect any but a heart of iron. From the crown of my head to my feet, I was covered with blood. My hair was all clotted with dust and blood; my shirt was stiff with blood. I suppose I looked like a man who had escaped a den of wild beasts, and barely escaped them. In this state I appeared before my master, humbly entreating him to interpose his authority for my protection. I told him all the circumstances as well as I could, and it seemed, as I spoke, at times to affect him. He would then walk the floor, and seek to justify Covey by saying he expected I deserved it. He asked me what I wanted. I told him, to let me get a new home; that as sure as I lived with Mr. Covey again, I should live with but to die with him; that Covey would surely kill me; he was in a fair way for it. Master Thomas ridiculed the idea that there was any danger of Mr. Covey’s killing me, and said that he knew Mr. Covey; that he was a good man, and that he could not think of taking me from him; that, should he do so, he would lose the whole year’s wages; that I belonged to Mr. Covey for one year, and that I must go back to him, come what might; and that I must not trouble him with any more stories, or that he would himself get hold of me. After threatening me thus, he gave me a very large dose of salts, telling me that I might remain in St. Michael’s that night, (it being quite late,) but that I must be off back to Mr. Covey’s early in the morning; and that if I did not, he would get hold of me, which meant that he would whip me. I remained all night, and, according to his orders, I started off to Covey’s in the morning, (Saturday morning,) wearied in body and broken in spirit. I got no supper that night, or breakfast that morning. I reached Covey’s about nine o’clock; and just as I was getting over the fence that divided Mrs. Kemp’s fields from ours, out ran Covey with his cowskin, to give me another whipping. Before he could reach me, I succeeded in getting to the cornfield; and as the corn was very high, it afforded me the means of hiding. He seemed very angry, and searched for me a long time. My behavior was altogether unaccountable. He finally gave up the chase, thinking, I suppose, that I must come home for something to eat; he would give himself no further trouble in looking for me. I spent that day mostly in the woods, having the alternative before me,—to go home and be whipped to death, or stay in the woods and be starved to death. That night, I fell in with Sandy Jenkins, a slave with whom I was somewhat acquainted. Sandy had a free wife who lived about four miles from Mr. Covey’s; and it being Saturday, he was on his way to see her. I told him my circumstances, and he very kindly invited me to go home with him. I went home with him, and talked this whole matter over, and got his advice as to what course it was best for me to pursue. I found Sandy an old adviser. He told me, with great solemnity, I must go back to Covey; but that before I went, I must go with him into another part of the woods, where there was a certain root, which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me. He said he had carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received a blow, and never expected to while he carried it. I at first rejected the idea, that the simple carrying of a root in my pocket would have any such effect as he had said, and was not disposed to take it; but Sandy impressed the necessity with much earnestness, telling me it could do no harm, if it did no good. To please him, I at length took the root, and, according to his direction, carried it upon my right side. This was Sunday morning. I immediately started for home; and upon entering the yard gate, out came Mr. Covey on his way to meeting. He spoke to me very kindly, bade me drive the pigs from a lot near by, and passed on towards the church. Now, this singular conduct of Mr. Covey really made me begin to think that there was something in the root which Sandy had given me; and had it been on any other day than Sunday, I could have attributed the conduct to no other cause than the influence of that root; and as it was, I was half inclined to think the root to be something more than I at first had taken it to be. All went well till Monday morning. On this morning, the virtue of the root was fully tested. Long before daylight, I was called to go and rub, curry, and feed, the horses. I obeyed, and was glad to obey. But whilst thus engaged, whilst in the act of throwing down some blades from the loft, Mr. Covey entered the stable with a long rope; and just as I was half out of the loft, he caught hold of my legs, and was about tying me. As soon as I found what he was up to, I gave a sudden spring, and as I did so, he holding to my legs, I was brought sprawling on the stable floor. Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey seemed taken all aback. He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the ends of my fingers. Mr. Covey soon called out to Hughes for help. Hughes came, and, while Covey held me, attempted to tie my right hand. While he was in the act of doing so, I watched my chance, and gave him a heavy kick close under the ribs. This kick fairly sickened Hughes, so that he left me in the hands of Mr. Covey. This kick had the effect of not only weakening Hughes, but Covey also. When he saw Hughes bending over with pain, his courage quailed. He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer. With that, he strove to drag me to a stick that was lying just out of the stable door. He meant to knock me down. But just as he was leaning over to get the stick, I seized him with both hands by his collar, and brought him by a sudden snatch to the ground. By this time, Bill came. Covey called upon him for assistance. Bill wanted to know what he could do. Covey said, “Take hold of him, take hold of him!” Bill said his master hired him out to work, and not to help to whip me; so he left Covey and myself to fight our own battle out. We were at it for nearly two hours. Covey at length let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The truth was, that he had not whipped me at all. I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. He would occasionally say, he didn’t want to get hold of me again. “No,” thought I, “you need not; for you will come off worse than you did before.”

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from
the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

From this time I was never again what might be called fairly whipped, though I remained a slave four years afterwards. I had several fights, but was never whipped.

It was for a long time a matter of surprise to me why Mr. Covey did not immediately have me taken by the constable to the whipping-post, and there regularly whipped for the crime of raising my hand against a white man in defence of myself. And the only explanation I can now think of does not entirely satisfy me; but such as it is, I will give it. Mr. Covey enjoyed the most unbounded reputation for being a first-rate overseer and negro-breaker. It was of considerable importance to him. That reputation was at stake; and had he sent me—a boy about sixteen years old—to the public whipping-post, his reputation would have been lost; so, to save his reputation, he suffered me to go unpunished.

Slaughter-House 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

    There’s not too many things one can say about Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ that have not been said. After reading Goldammer’s mystery below I felt ready for another take on Dresden and wondered how I could have missed this work that has become a true classic? Perhaps that’s the reason, its popularity that kept me away (such occurs to me frequently). Then I accept that as my lost for the novel is certainly in a profoundly remarkable, special, even scary. class of its own.
    We all know a Billy Pilgrim, the typical white-bread fed American boy who wonders into a quandary of bad and dangerous world affairs, does not get so terribly wounded; uses a very simple imagination to displace world realities, survives, has a usual rather disjointed life, then dies. Some of us know the upsetting futility of war submerged beneath the bristling, deadly silliness of the later novel ‘Catch-22’ and then Tom Hanks seemingly inoculation from war in Forrest Gump. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse certainly presages these gems in a way forever outstanding. What is it that makes this novel great?
     It is readable, has a good story – stories! – and all that. But I think Vonnegut has produced a terror upon human senses. What is certainly lighthearted, easily digestible becomes actually a hit in the gut. It’s obvious we are in the apparent mind of a creative genius, able to flash his skilled, inspired moments of brilliance before us, almost at will, Picasso-like, flapping flaccid world relevances as, yes, the novel ordains and questions the meaning of life.
     A bomber drops its violent load and goes backwards to the making of the bomb. The backwards beginning again and again in this work. If we were to follow human natures like that, would we see the beginning, catch it, change it, before it goes again to its predestined load?
     No and that is why there is the invention of the imaginary space vehicle, the Tralfamadorians, who Billy believes in so relevantly. Because this is the place where time is meaningless. It is nonlinear. Death and life exist simultaneously. What is dead is alive, it loses its existence with death and occurs simultaneously with life. (And somehow the future is there too where you never die.) And so this is time. The violence of Dresden is still there. “It was the fastest killing of large numbers of people — one hundred and thirty-five thousand people in a matter of hours.” But Vonnegut was wrong with the numbers, and I believe correct with the violence, the horrors of World War II are still there. All of them.
Goebbels upped the 20,000-plus figure with an extra zero, looking for the rage to follow. At Vonnegut’s time, 1969, for him it was 135,000 burned, incinerated in this “most destructive aerial bombing of World War II.” But the rage had already presaged the event. First found in 1944 by the Russians in a prison camp. Then several times later, up to Jan 1945 when the Russians liberated the Auschwitz site.
     Dresden followed in February.
     The novel is deeply philosophical, perceptively questioning the reality of time, mental space and perhaps freedom and choice. Who was Billy but a limp reflection of the age? The nonplus suburban lifer, giving speeches full of jokes at the club and not attached to any meaning.
     Large tragedies become reduced to small ones. The crazed Colonel, call me “Wild Bob”, based on the actual grandson of iconic William Bill Cody, a fellow prisoner of Vonnegut in Dresden, dies. The wearisome, dangerous simpleton Weary dies of gangrene on the feet shoveled into, standing, spooned together, POWs, in a similarly over-crowded rail box car. And there’s the other remarkable unremarkable hobo who dies in starvation on the car. The captured English officers are held as gentlemen by Germans who wanted to be that way. (Hitler could have destroyed Britain, but, alas, did not want to.)
     And Dresden, poor Dresden, “Florence on the Elbe,” which is the way Vonnegut wanted to see it. A bastion of Medieval culture, artifacts, architecture. If one could interpret time so that the tragedy did hold as a major one, but not in comparison, say, to the nest of accompanying horrors, what kind of time-space formula would be required? Disjointed from time, why that of the Tralfamadorians, of course.
     Slaughterhouse-5 novel is an amazing accomplishment and can be refreshingly read over and over. And I think Vonnegut is basically right about time. In fact, his ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ has a perception that would forever yield new discovery, things still not said. For example, No, time does not occur, only, we do.
     “I been hungrier than this,” the hobo told Billy. “I been in worse places than this. This ain’t so bad” – said the hobo before he too died in the rail car.

The Air Raid Killer by Frank Goldammer

 The Air Raid Killer (2016) is a spectacular, thrilling piece of writing by German novelist Frank Goldammer (translated by Steve Anderson). The story line wraps itself around the grisly World War II horror of the 1945 Dresden fire burning, provoking a surreal-like feeling as you advance through the story’s intriguing teasing mysteries, twisted disguises and utterly debased murders. Max Heller is the non-Nazi 6-foot tall detective, who, with his sidekick Oldenbusch as photographer, must compete with doctrinaire party concerns of chief detective, SS officer, Klepp Waffen, to investigate the strange murder of nurse Klara Bellman, assaulted, nearly skinned during an air raid. The atmosphere is intense and gloomy in Dresden, unique German cultural setting of Medieval architecture and statues. A strange feeling looms in the German breast as the end of the war is on the horizon with the Russians quickly advancing from the east, pressing thousands of refugees and soldiers into the city’s communication and transportation hub. Many of the refugees are German Silesians,forced out by advancing Russians as usurpers of Nazi-acquired land and scorned by the Nazis as half-Aryans. How, upon this real horror could a mystery writer yet impose another horror of wolf howling, ‘fright man’, murders? Goldammer does remarkably well. The chilling night and day of the city’s bombing, February 13 through 15, 1995 appears suddenly and horrendously. The reader is practically caught off guard in an unrelenting firestorm of dust, ash, and blood, loose bricks and rubble from buildings crashing down, pieces of walls, smashed furniture and thousands of bodies burnt to a crisp. Heller finds himself with others trapped in a cellar. They must climb upon each other to lift themselves out. “To his horror, he saw the entire world was on fire.” “Why would they do this to us?” a little boy asks. Yet there is another murder of a nurse. A wolf’s howl had been heard, there are rumors of a ‘fright man’. The mystery continues unmitigated by destruction as a deeply scarred city tries to pick itself up. Detective Heller eventually forms an unlikely alliance with Commissar Alexei Zaitsev of the Russian army who uses his authority to foster Heller through his investigation. A large German mansion lands on their palette, with hidden places and a dungeon to careen the mystery into creepy twilight. Zaitsev eventually ques Detective Heller on the depraved hell of the concentration camps the Russians had come upon in January. Together, in Goldhammer’s fabulously involved mystery, Heller and Zaitsev find that they are working to place an end to yet another indescribable horror. A well-paced, gripping, exciting tale. 

Poet Reviews Poet Reviewer

So what is it that a good book of poems maketh that reaches it to the level of New York Times best poetry 2018? I have no idea of who the reviewer is but what qualities of fine poetry does he reveal?

These are the books:

HUMAN HOURS, by Catherine Barnett
THE POPOL VUH, translated by Michael Bazzett

YEARS, MONTHS, AND DAYS, by Amanda Jernigan.
DARK WOODS, by Richard Sanger.
WADE IN THE WATER, by Tracy K. Smith (our poet laureate)
A MEMORY OF THE FUTURE, by Elizabeth Spires

LIKE, by A. E. Stallings
TRANSACTION HISTORIES, by Donna Stonecipher.
BLOOD LABORS, by Daniel Tobin.
HEY, MARFA, by Jeffrey Yang.

Now meander over what he says:

a superb ear
devastating slant rhyme
deliberately casual
domestic poem command
unique and subtle challenges
quiet showcase in tone management
formal agility
classical expertise
attractively darkened
mordant yet romantic
seemingly unrelated observations
meticulously knit together
poetic equivalence of a chord
appealing effect
robust formally dexterous writing
hypnotic deeply strange creation saga
elegant precision
playfully exacting lines

Combine all these together – ah! wishful thinking. But study them at least, and you shalleth be proud. The task now is to check and see which of these titles appear in other end-of-the-year lists and to ask why.


Ideas from Poet Watcher Elisa New

If you saw the original manuscripts, you will notice that Emily Dickinson – whose 1800 poems were never published – used dashes. In this interview from Harvard poet critic Eliza New describes Dickinson’s work: “The exquisite craft of the individual poems. The extraordinary metaphors that just pay off and pay off and pay off.” I had mentioned to another writer the power of Dickinson’s metaphor and I don’t think the writer got the point. Dickinson: “I felt a Funeral in my Brain.”

Dickinson is important because interviewer Tyler Cowen got New to admit the the best poets in our country were Dickinson and Walt Whitman. What I am saying here is that any ‘poet’ worth their salt would have experience these two in the most deepest of ways and would not be writing Hallmark stuff and call them poems. But alas, that’s what 95 percent of facebook poems are, HALLMARK DRIVEL.

New says without Dickinson or Whitman, there would probably not be a Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, Carl Sandburg, C. D. Wright, C. K. Williams; a Susan Howe, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath.

If you don’t know these poets, then KNOW THEM – try to have deep and meaningful experiences with them.

Then there’s John Ashbery, whose early long narrative poetry I frequently post as contrasted to his recent nearly indecipherable poetry. New describes the latter as “the cut-up way, in the media-fied way that he saw earlier than the rest of us.” – which helps me view his difficult work in a different way. The interviewer then mentions some Canadien ‘Rupi Kaur’ whose poetry grew through Instagram two million followers to 77 weeks on NYT Best Seller List. New doesn’t criticize the poet. Instead she notes “we are in the middle of an interesting king of generational shift.” This younger generation has “a lot of sharing and a lot of sociality [and] wants to hear about the personal lives of their peers.” She simply says she is “too old” for such sorts.

And then she mentions Billy Collins, a well crafted poet who seems to defy the nonpopularity quotient. I immediately viewed some of his work and it’s the power of both his craft and his thought, both in ordinary language (of metaphor) that reign supreme – yeap, he’s my new flame. (LOOK HIM UP!)

Other poets New identifies are T.S. Eliot – “too fastidious”; John Milton; William Carlos Williams; Poe: “no poem should be longer than 108 lines,” which is wrong because then we wouldn’t have such as Dante (nor Milton!).

She points out the power of Herman Melville that did not exclude nor marginalize the female experience, did not confine such to the domestic realm but, I guess, gave much thought. Later in the interview she answers the question of the most important work to help others understand the american experience is “The Scarlet Letter”. There’s Willa Cather to help us understand our diversity, writing of the Midwestern modern America (1900s thereabout) such as My Antonia. I have recently made a light touch into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, these were some of the immigrants that populated a great potential America.

New makes prompted comments on Robert Frost; of “that Puritan tradition” (from California), he “tells us it’s good to acknowledge our pain.” Prompted on Gwendolyn Brooks, how she is a people’s poet. Ezra Pound, whom she would naturally first rebound from for his anti-Semitism, she yet notes his “beautiful, musical effects” as he tried to go cross-cultural and traditional, a “technician par excellence”. The problem with Pound and Eliot for her: “But I like my poets to give me some wisdom, and I don’t find him [them] wise.”

“For whatever reason, great art is often fertilized by bad character.” Eliot “was always a person of too much privilege and a person who made such bad choices…” And “The Waste Land, then, becomes a “magnificent accident”.

Positive mentions of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Robert Pinsky to say that poems should be read out, shared ‘around a fire,’ “or recited after school in a pageant or sang with music and jesters.”

She defines Thomas Hardy, Melville (his “Battle Pieces,” “Clarel”), great novelists as great poets even though, in “a very banal way of saying it – they really do call on different skill sets. The sort of distillation and often asocial concentration that it takes to be a lyric poet is quite different from the crowded, cacophonous, socially alert set of faculties one needs to write a great novel.”

What is wonderful – years ago, among one of my several life book collections, I had this small but really LARGE THICK book of poems. They were all expert, superb haikus. Well, New mentions this work. The volume of haiku by my absolutely fav life-changing writer RICHARD WRIGHT (of Native Son and Black Boy novels fame – as if you didn’t know!) Wright was a great poet, jesus!

The interviewer (Tyler Cowen) is apparently as fascinated with Bob Dylan as a poet as he is with Dickinson – who New located as being fascinated with Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

“[I]t is our humanity that poetry most meaningfully serves… I hope…we will cherish more the things about us that are just humans.”

She advises printing out poems “It’s better than reading it on your phone. And put it in your pocket,” take the advice of Whitman: “Loafe with me on the grass.”

New: “I really believe that human language — even encoded in some of the arcane ways, poems, and code — language is fascinating to other human beings.”

And i think that’s what it’s about to me, then, the fascination of language, it’s ability to communicate things and provide me silently indisputable things of beauty.

View at

The Sea Stories of T.D. Euwaite by Richard Brotbeck

“The stars in a pitch-black night sky a thousand miles out to sea are breathtaking. It’s easy to see how religions were born The majesty is overwhelming.” Pop Eye would have never transverse these haunts but perhaps he should have, for this is a rousing tale of our present day military sea man attached oiled down at the gaps with plenty of humor, charm and a rumpus beat. I think of the lightness of heart I had along with the respect for the crew when I first road the pages of the classic ‘No Time For Sergeants’ many years ago. And there’s this kid’s thirsty fascination with riding submerged on the submarine that even the several sub hunt movies have yet dissolved. It’s all here in The Sea Stories of T.D. Euwait, a ripping ride with Richard Brotbeck, ‘dolphin’ designated submarine sailor. We take our hats off to the piercing determination that moves this tale through choices, training, travel, exotic foods, roasts and frozen steaks, and plenty of pot and fights and yes, women. Breathing the nuclear sub’s metallic air, engaged in seaman tasks listening to sonar, Shore Patrol duty, even the final engaging brig scenes, the truth is that “Submarine patrols are long and tedious… You need some comedy once in a while to keep everyone loose.” And occasionally you wonder if the sea has this much water in it, for the easy rippling humor flows nonstop.

Perhaps it’s the matter of man who Richard represents. His dad took the family from its Midwest Missouri origins to Guam where he served as an FAA flight standards officer. It’s the late seventies and Richard forages with fellow seamen, the new ones, who yet to have seen war in a culture of American rock, drugs and motorcycles. Across waters, over lands, they were able to advance the much-fabled innocent, sweet, anti-communist American nonchalance while equipped with the most powerful of the instruments, “wire-guided acoustic-sensing torpedoes, nuclear warhead tipped ballistic missiles, a nuclear reactor.” They had machines producing copious gallons of fresh water. The missiles stations had the near genius ‘weird scientists’ while crew-cut bunches of sailors pursued practiced care to manage the “boat”. Cramped quarters, manufactured air, fire watches, roving shore patrol duty, a spam fondness, ‘monochrome green explosions’ with garbage, the wonder of seamanship is all here. Not a thing’s missing from Popeye’s Brotbeck sightings that could be called out of his sight.

He was initially trained in Groton, Connecticut at the Basic Enlisted Submarine School (BESS). The love of the New England small town never leaves Brotbeck, where he eventually returns to retire. Frank Zappa, Queen, some group called ‘Journey’, there’s more training near San Diego, jungle motorcycle riding, Liar’s poker, pool, and shifts between Pearl Harbor’s Ford Island, Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach, and his familiar second home, the Navy’s refitting quarters at Apra Harbor, Guam.

Being part of “America’s Drunkest Generation,” its ongoing spectacular competition between weed and drink; the pages flip through large flying roaches, unqualified chief petty officers, destroyer escort duty, a Dante-like Olongapo, Philippines, bar knockouts, becoming of age via an Aussie woman, the Indian Ocean and wildebeests and astonishing orgasms in Kenya but no Kilimanjaro. Shellback Day passing the Equator, Jinhae, South Korea, ‘cleaned, painted, and lubricated,’ tarp and tackle, throwing line and chain, the artist in Richard, the t-shirt designer, has so many marbles on his plate, one does wonder of his plunge into the brig, solitary at that, at the end of the tale. Five years a navy man, an ‘evil genius’ of astonishing creative character, was it merely weed or the chaotic thought of not being allowed passage to his father’s funeral who, with his brother, flew B17s in WW2? I don’t know, but over a richly written tale, Richard Brotbeck manages to recoup his good military status and now grows foodstuffs while tendering word craft on his New England farm. From this seamanship arises an admirable man who, in “The Sea Tales of E.D. Euwaite,” you get to like a lot, very much.

Richard Brotbeck (Author), John Nebraska (Illustrator), Nessa Shields (Editor), Joe Cavallo (Photographer), Jim Herold (Photographer), Rick Macionis (Photographer)

RELLIK: An Anti-Novel by Dom Ritter , Tina Lewis

Now here I’m sitting here about to read this novel. I gots me drink, a little smoke and I’m thinking I need like a little more to blow me head away. You know what I mean. I was getting ready to make that cell call. Well, so I decided to go on and read a few pages and I say, ‘god d—, what!!!’ Me head gets BLOWN AWAY! It’s like this dude Toby, the main character who’s been looking for a satisfying lay and now working it nice and proper in coitus with a real fine woman, and about to make another nice satisfying thrust when Bam! Right in front of him APPEARS MIA, the ex whom he had only just broken up with a few weeks ago. The beautiful rider atop him screams from the man’s shockingly abrupt grip on her breasts and it appears right from there on, this dude, who had just broken up with Mia a few weeks ago, is headed to a whole series of volcano gripping shocks and stuff because MIA IS A GHOST.

Okay, alright. Another lady appears somehow on the scene. She’s a little older than our protagonist. So it’s like I’m sitting here, my drink (little wild turkey bourbon yall) helps me recover a little bit, take a little toke, reading along. So like at Toby’s place – hey, did I tell you how somewhere, a feature of Somerset Maugham appears on Toby? You remember Betty Davis in ‘On Human Bondage’, a cub-footed Leslie Howard hopelessly pursuing his life’s love thing on her? Well yes, it appears that crazy man, author Dom Ritter, loads Toby down with a special feature of deformed toes. ‘Chinese bums’ he calls them. Let’s skip that, and I’m wondering here should I make that call when somehow the dude appears in Dr. Webb’s office where she weasels his life to the final embarrassing question: ‘You ain’t never had no committed long-term relationship with a woman’ and our gent wants to stop it right there. Any other dismissal of his existential angst could not have been more fatal, even Toby’s apparent lack of control of his bowel movements when unconsciously under severe stress. ‘Get off my back, I ain’t gay.’ He says something similar. And it’s like immediately his luck turns and something continues in the same pace, the same way and manner of the near quixotic searching and questing similar to the ongoing pounding on that Gunther Grass tin drum. Only ringing out before Toby’s eyes as svelte and mysterious as she wants to be is….

No, wait. There’s too many angles to all of this. Too many morsels, too many delectable features of these routes turned out in an anti-novel whacking and morphing and photoshoppng Toby’s sexy Philip Roth-like romps through some brilliant and fantastic twists of multiple duplicitous personality syndromes. I want to say that Dom Ritter handles this funny, sophisticated, and whacky tale of sex, love and mystery with thorough and mischievous aplomb. Ceaseless times you will retrieve your head and sanity through Toby’s near miraculous escapes only to have it again caught and BLOWN AWAY. Goodness god, gracious. And I never did have to make that call.

Novel: “Love Dreams” by Mia Zorrita

Good sex is a rare thing – and most of us know that it can be wonderful and exhilarating. In Mia Zorrita’s ‘Love Dreams’, it is like you are on a wild and glorious hayride, that hold-on-tightly hog ride, straight through Sexville. The writing is sharp, engaging and perceptive, levitating a smooth flow from page to page of overpowering lovemaking. The protagonist expresses a freedom and indeed a trust that I think we all want to believe we can have, something we can believe is still possible. Julio, a hard muscle-toned, non-stop sex machine, is the main male character for our protagonist ‘T’, and it is good that he is actually the sensitive, respectful, and, of course highly-sexed, inventive and patient gentleman of love that there is too little of in the media as regards Hispanic men. T is the older woman who daringly finally steps into a free expression of full, unabashed sexuality with her dedicated lover. The love-making is so overwhelming, so full and imaginative, I ask myself how is it possible that an older woman can accept and enjoy herself as much as she does? T is very attractive, she has built a physical presence and persona that wields men toward her. But does she want to get married? No! She doesn’t. Then who is T? What has she found that makes her character so special? Is it possible to build a protagonist, develop their character through sex? I began to understand that it’s her freedom that allows her to accept these hugh challenges to be completely taken over by Julio in certain ways at the drop of a hat. Excellent writing from Zorrita renders page after page of her fictionalized diary as a fantasy, a dream come true. Eventually, along with T – ‘Julio, I can’t take anymore,’ – I found myself putting the book down to catch ny breath. Yes, I believe there are some great insights here on a woman’s character. It is the beautiful nature of woman’s freedom, so delicately wrought and effortlessly expressed throughout the book that makes it difficult for me to wait for the second volume. I’m expecting and hoping that there will be one. Until then, I will just have to read this first hot potato again.