Scoundrel Time

Four Poems by Ellen June Wright


Angela, from the African region known as Angola,
grower of figs, keeper of pigs, recorded as Angelo.

Watched over by angels for whom she was named,
survived the crossing in a ship’s bowels,
survived pirates and disease. Traded like cargo.

First African woman recorded on the land that became America,
Jamestown, Virginia, distant outpost of the British empire.

1619 Angela, arrives from Ngola,
Angola now, also a sprawling penitentiary.

Acres of fertile Louisiana low country is home
to Angela’s kin and offspring.

Angola, a dystopian daymare.
An institution where the incarcerated study
agriculture, civics and jurisprudence.

Home of a modern-day plantation
bent inmates, slave laborers,
in field rows picking crops.

No jobs for our men?
Plenty work on the plantation.

If only the guilty went to jail,
there wouldn’t be enough bodies to fill them.

Sacrifice the innocent for profit:
arrested for no signal changing lanes,
arrested for fines he couldn’t pay,
arrested for a murder he didn’t commit.

Angola where my brother is the one I’ll never see again.
Angola where my husband is the one I never found.

Angola where the poor are. They can’t make bail.
Build a prison industry like stripes of a lash on their backs.

Prison investors grow rich off of inmates.
Angela’s kin, precious human crude as far as you can see.

What to do with America’s surplus cargo?
Build jails to house them.

21st century slaves, human crops like cotton and corn.
Angela’s kin and offspring shuffle in chains.

Work them to death, bury them on prison grounds,
soil sweetened by black bodies.

Angola, America’s largest penitentiary,
home to Angela’s kin and offspring.


Angela Under the Fig Tree

When you sit under the glossy-leafed fig tree,
claiming a free moment between
the endless rounds of cooking, cleaning—
lighting the fire and hauling water
from before the sun comes up to after
Master Pierce and family sleep in their beds,
when you think of Ndongo
and your Mbandu people,
when you think of your rivers:
Cuanza and Lucala,
your hills, your valleys,
all that ties a woman
to her homeland:
your mother’s countenance,
your father’s voice as he called you back
knowing you had strayed too far.
When the solitary moment passes
and you have to return to your labors,
hold Ndongo inside—
whisper the names of all you knew
but will never see again.
Call them in Kimbundu the way you
were taught to call ancestors,
though you don’t know if they’re alive or dead.
Repeat your first name like a song, as you toss slop
to your pigs, as you fill the trough
whisper words forbidden:
the sweet name your parents called you before
enemies forced marched you to the coast,
sold you to the Portuguese
who branded you, baptized you
and chained you in the belly of a ship.


Angela, Dream of Wings

During brief hours of sleep,
night thick as soot,
stars and crescent moon
the only light, wings emerge.
Travel back across devouring waves.
This time not chained and fettered
in the rump of a boat;
this time sail currents of air.
Angela—angel, fly home;
it’s still there.
Your mother wakes each morning,
longs to see you.
Your father’s broken
having lost his beloved girl.
And when you fly, bid farewell
to no one. You owe them nothing.
You were never chattel,
only held against your will.
They profited from evil.
Even as they sang
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,
even as they quoted scripture,
Bondservants, obey…your earthly masters,
never willing to trade places with you.
Angela, take flight.
Fly home each night.
Sleep on the pallet that was yours,
familiar and warm.


Angela Disappears c. 1625

Angela, ‘Ngola’s exiled, bound, enslaved,
girl, woman, mother,
faceless, voiceless—

you disappear from the records,
no death date, absent
as though you were never there.

So many ills could’ve killed you:
fevers, childbirth, Powhatan raids,
winter’s chill.

Perhaps your body finally failed you,
simply more work than rest,
more grief than joy.

Perhaps despondent knowing
you can never get back home—
like the loss one feels

when losing a loved one
makes the body yield to its
inevitable end so much sooner.

No gray-stone grave marker,
no weathered, wooden cross
though you were Christianized.

Six years in bondage, laboring
from before gilded sunrise
to evening’s flickering candle.

What is death to the bound
but a key to unlock rusted fetters
and set you free.


Ellen June Wright is a poet based in Hackensack, New Jersey. She was born in England of West Indian parents and immigrated to the United States as a child. She attended school in NJ and taught high-school language arts for three decades. She has worked as a consulting teacher on the guides for three PBS poetry series called Poetry Haven, Fooling with Words and the Language of Life. Her poetry has most recently been published in Naugatuck River Review, New York Quarterly, Plume, Atlanta Review, Solstice, Tar River Poetry, Paterson Literary Review, Gordon Square Review, The South Carolina Review and Tulsa Review. She is a Cave Canem and Hurston/Wright alumna. Her work was selected as The Missouri Review’s Poem of the Week and was featured in the article, Exceptional Prose Poetry From Around the Web: June 2021. She was a finalist in the Gulf Stream 2020 summer poetry contest and is a founding member of Poets of Color virtual poetry workshop in New Jersey. Ellen received five 2021 and 2022 Pushcart Prize nominations. She can be found on Twitter @EllenJuneWrites.


Image By: Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash