When the plowblade struck
An old stump hiding under
The soil like a beggar’s
Rotten tooth, they swarmed up
& Mister Jackson left the plow
Wedged like a whaler’s harpoon.
The horse was midnight
Against dusk, tethered to somebody’s
Pocketwatch. He shivered, but not
The way women shook their heads
Before mirrors at the five
& dime—a deeper connection
To the low field’s evening star.
He stood there, in tracechains,
Lathered in froth, just
Stopped by a great, goofy
Calmness. He whinnied
Once, & then the whole
Beautiful, blue-black sky
Fell on his back.
~Yusuf Komunyakaa “Yellow Jackets” from Pleasure Dome
Death by a thousand stings.
This poem is twenty years old, yet shattering to read by the light of the events of this past week and this past year. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning Black poet and Vietnam War veteran, it is a stark description of a teamster and plow horse going about their routine work when a hive of yellow jackets is disturbed.
The farmer saves himself.
The abandoned work horse remains harnessed and chained to the immobilized plow, eventually falling crushed beneath the swarm on his back.
How many times recently have we witnessed this stark reality of the power of the angry swarm – whether the target is someone set upon and killed by law enforcement gone rogue, or last week, a man in blue defending the U.S. Capitol, beaten and crushed by rioters who pummeled him senseless with the pole of the American flag?
A poetic metaphor about an enslaved worker dying in chains expands to include us all:
-we are the farmer who panics and runs for his life in the midst of crisis
-we are the harnessed plowhorse obediently and calmly doing his job, becoming the sacrifice for the sake of the farmer
-we are the angry swarm whose well being and security is threatened so all hell breaks loose
-we are the poet whose words try to make sense of the senseless.
Ultimately, the Writer of the Word is our rescuer: rather than abandoning us to our fate, He saves us by becoming the sacrifice Himself.
He allowed the swarm to fall on His back rather than on us.