Meditations on the Slave Gospels

“The artistic sensitivity of the people will rise to create what they need out of the bare bones of the facts of the truth; otherwise art would not be necessary. We cannot yet live with the truths or the facts: it is what we do with them that determines what we are as a people.”


Editor's Introduction

To whom it may concern:

This series of… I hesitate to call them “poems,” since they are more raw than that word might suggest—more visceral in a way that could, and perhaps should, disturb more than edify, as some still expect “poetry” to do—

I will call them what the author does: “meditations.”

These meditations were submitted to Metapsychosis by NGINYU NGUMBA (Siben Gerard), with the following note:

It was Nathaniel Hawthorne who jotted down in the wish-list of his notebooks: “To write a dream, which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its eccentricities and aimlessness—with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole. Up to this old age of the world, no such thing has ever been written.”

In a follow-up email, Siben elaborated:

I wrote the meditations with the intention of translating the trauma of slavery to the page, and it did came out like an eco-graphic card; with no straight lines; no reservations.

The images made evident by my words can, and would never, attain the slave’s concrete experience.

I believe your readers would connect with the world behind the words—and I’ll humbly propose that you publish just the first chapter on your site, then we can take it from there, based on the grounds of the replies we’ll get.

As an editor, I have hesitated to publish these pieces, not because of their graphic content, which is common to literature dealing with American slavery, but because the collective work of facing historical trauma remains so polarizing and fraught.

Moreover, these meditations, coming as a “dream,” actually from outside contemporary African-American experience (Siben was born and lives in Cameroon) might not do justice to concrete transformations in reality, which some Americans might rather focus on building upon.

Nonetheless, out of respect for the raw artistry evident in these verses, and to honor the author’s wishes, and for other reasons yet to become apparent, we are publishing “Gospel 1” (of 6) of these Meditations, and will post the remaining ones based on reader response.


Marco V Morelli
Co-Editor and Publisher, Metapsychosis


Hi Seben,

I was very impressed with this first of the Slave Gospels , and I hope that you will publish more of them. I was somewhat puzzled by Marco’s very carefully worded introduction, although I guess I can see why he thought it was necessary. When a writer addresses certain highly charged social issues, he not only has to contend with ideological opponents—who will claim that no such injustice exists, or that it once existed but was not as bad as the writer claims, or that it was bad but that those who suffered the injustice should just get over it, etc.; all of this would be maddening enough, but the writer may also have to contend with those with whom he essentially agrees.

I can see how some people might be disoriented by the jaggedness of your style and how others may want the reassurance of some clear-cut political message. The relationship between politics and literature is a tricky one, however. In his poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” Auden said, “for poetry makes nothing happen.” This is a peculiar statement coming from Auden, who spent much of the 1930s demonstrating that it was possible to write powerful and formally daring poetry that was also quite political. It is the tension between the personal and the formal and the political that gives his poetry from that decade so much bite. His later poetry is, I think, fairly slack and complacent in comparison. It may be more productive to reframe the debate entirely by saying that literature is its own form of action.

In reading this first part of the Slave Gospels, I was struck by how skillfully you frame the torturous issues and emotions and cultural memories you explore. While your images may be discontinuous, the sentences in which they occur move in a formal counterpoint that stirs up all sorts of literary echoes. I think of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the Blake of the Prophetic Books , Saint John Perse’s Anabasis , Ginsberg’s Howl , Juan Goytisolo’s Count Julian , the Neruda of poems such as “Walking Around” and “United Fruit Company,” and pretty much all of Vallejo. This is not to say that your work is in any way imitative of these writers, only that your writing moves with a more than personal rhythm.

Last Wednesday, when I first read your piece, I had just spent several hours reading Gerard Malanga’s translation of selected poems by Vallejo, so certain similarities jumped out at me when I read your piece later in the day. One of the great strengths of Vallejo is his ability to synthesize qualities that would not normally go together, such as blunt physicality and dreamlike ambiguity, a rage for social justice with a sense that we are actors in a passion play, fractured grammar and direct, hard-hitting statements, peculiar detail and panorama, delicacy and violence. In your work as in his, there is a sense that some protective psychic skin has been ripped away, that the writer has become a telepathic nexus for all of the evil and oppression in the world, that the writer’s outcry has become a universal gesture, an attempt to yank the unconscious demons of the collective into a space that might provide for some greater freedom of movement, into a clearing where the first stages of an exorcism might be held.

This idea of poetry-as-exorcism is an idea that I kept coming back to as I read, although I find that I am also hesitant to use the word. I often think of slavery as the Original Sin of the U.S. How can you exorcise evils that are so foundational to a culture, especially when those who are casually indifferent to and still complicitous with such evils are seated comfortably in the heights of power? Once again, this has to do with literature as a form of action, in this case ritual action. As with other forms of healing, it is first necessary to enter into the dead zones of the body—in this case the collective body—to liberate trapped energies and to lift all repressed contents into the light of clear awareness.





Hi Seben,

There was a curious bit of synchronicity with one of the writers that I mentioned. I was not sure why I thought of Saint John Perse, a writer I used to like but whom I haven’t read in 15 or 20 years. Superficially, his work does not resemble yours, but there are links in terms of the rhythm. He has an ability to fuse oblique, often fragmentary statements and evocations of vast movements of peoples across time and space into surging, ritualistic structures. After mentioning the name in my comment, I went back and read parts of Anabasis and did a bit of research on the writer. I was very surprised to find that he was an important influence on Wole Soyinka, one of the writers you cite as an influence.

You might be interested in a piece–“Autumnal Fallout”–that I published in Metapsychosis a few years ago. There is also a recording of the piece.

Looking forward to seeing more of your work!

Dear Siben, I was deeply moved by Gospel 1 and grateful for its publication here. Like Brian, I so much hope you will want to publish the others.

Here is a moment that most especially created waves of painful recognition.

“When a slave owner bought a Negro, it wasn�t just physical strength he bought, but in essence a contraption of biological organs, emotions and senses; he owned on purchase, the negro�s sperm, ovaries, will to urinate, laugh, cry, smell, think, taste and hear.”

Marco’s description of this meditation as “raw artistry” seems perfect to me. I only wish I could respond more fully. As always, in the presence of such artistry and depth, I feel speechless. For now, I just want to thank you for your courage and for this gift of, yes, poetry. Poetry because forged in fire. Poetry because carrying so very much time and feeling and presence in few words. Like a small cup holding an ocean.