Estill Pollock: Mason-Dixon

Slave auction 1859_posterSlave auction, 1859 2


Estill Pollock‘s first pamphlet selection of poems, Metaphysical Graffiti, was published in England. This was followed by a principal collection, Constructing the Human (Poetry Salzburg), which was later developed into the book cycle, Blackwater Quartet. Between 2005-11, in collaboration with Cinnamon Press in Wales, he published a second major book cycle, Relic Environments Trilogy. His latest collection, Entropy is published by Broadstone Books (2021) in the United States. A native of Kentucky, he has lived in England for forty years. ‘Mason-Dixon’ will be included in Estill’s forthcoming collection, Ark, which is due out later this year.


Other examples of Estill Pollock’s longer poems will be found among  The High Window‘s  supplementary posts:

January 23, 2022  and  July 26, 2022



Hertford County, North Carolina

Three hundred dollars on the block, the girl
Just fourteen, pretty, set to her chores—the Master’s shadow
Falling across her from behind

Things he whispered, not in her grandmother’s Bible

Always her, said the Master’s wife, seeing
What she saw, the girl with a strip of calico, waving
Away flies from the Master’s plate, early heat
No reason for breakfast on the porch

The houseboy loafing in the shade


The child was early, four months, a grey heart
As the saying was, but lived, and the mother, herself
A willow wand, too weak to work, leeched, cupped
And bled on the Master’s orders
Until well enough for soup, and bread—for her, sweet words
Soft as catkins

But the wife knew a dowry’s reach, a gift
From her Papa, and nothing in it the Master could sign to
For all his swagger

What I own, she said, are these dirt acres, this
Slave stock blood and bone, this mulatto boy a trader’s gift
In Virginia, Kentucky too with a lively crowd
And on the block together
With the mother, worth their weight
In dollar coin

And she shook the trader’s hand, and the trader smiled
That yaller gal will see you right, and the half-caste child


The Master in the doorway, the hut dark, her clothes gone

The grandmother said to him, We know what
You done with that gal, and her just old enough
To take it—may be a good thing
She gone, instead of here, cut-up rough

From his belt, the Master drew his Colt
And shot her in the head


Southampton County, Virginia

From Carolina and old plantation lands
The trader’s wagon, slow into Virginia country
With the leg-iron stock—the auction rich enough
Even half-dead property pays its way

On the road, militia in old braid coats
Asking him his business, knocking heads
With musket butts, because they could, and he, Damn
Yore hides, thems mine to sell—why the Hell
You boys making trouble

Barefoot white trash grin, We got Nat Turner
Out near Belmont, killed all them
White folk, ain’t you heard—now he done for, at Jerusalem
Hanged and skinned, turned his Black ass
Into purses, for a souvenir

Another, looking in the wagon, calls out, Boys
Come look at this here pretty gal



Which Master now—sold twice
With the boy, first at Roanoke, then Lexington, inventory
Of a Captain’s house, her duty
Kitchen stores and errands in the town, the boy now
Edgy, lean, a hard temper cutting by
His bondage

Knowing her letters
And the sum of things, she reads
A handbill—a Carolina planter calls her runaway, kills all
He finds would take her—no matter
What a trader signed, the boy, too, a forfeit pale
As moonlit water

To the law he says, She my damn property
And I do what I will do—no man
South of here holds different, no woman neither
Except my damn wife, who thinks
To own my life

Hannah in the street, walking with her son
And soon enough the Master finds her, drags her
In the dirt to a cart—her son
Toting wood and a new fire iron
For the Captain, opens the Master’s skull

Hannah screaming, Oh God
Oh God
White men bind the boy, in a week
Sold south to Alabama—lucky, the houseboys say
When some for less sit headless
On the Richmond road


In Alabama fields, they sing

Satan is a busy ole man
He rolls dem stones my way
But Jesus is my bosom friend
He rolls dem stones away

In Alabama cotton, by the Coosa’s rolling bend

Where it flows to, who can say

Hertford County, North Carolina

Her son she knew was near, seen
Down by the river ford

A boy said, That man a big man and not
From hereabouts—he too White
But no yard boss, and reckon he know you, says
Meet him by the church—he be waitin

The Master sick now—last days, blood
Across the sheets but still he tells her, Come near

His wife, watching, tells him, Say your peace—still
My slave to sell, or kill

Even before, the Master never
In the church—sinners enough there by anybody’s count

The Methodists, afraid Nat Turner’s ghost
Still walks, give their Blacks a Bible verse, to remind them
Which way up

Her son through the trees by the log stack—dirty
From running ditches in the dark

Says he is for Ohio, anywhere
Past the Mason-Dixon—says, I hear the Master
At his time, and his coffin a weight
Of gold below him

She says, The Master dead, two days since, now please God
Dancin with the Devil

Her son, his wild look, a promise
For the gold, to pay Ohio men to buy her
From the Master’s witch

She says to him, Take this bread, the gold
Is phantom fare— what is done, God knows
Is done—my soul is free, somewhere a heaven for it

He knows this place, brutal
As a trapdoor gallows, its Master
So cruel that thugs stood aside for him to pass, but Death
Laughs last, and gold sunk in earth
Cold and bright may tarnish in the telling, and some
Hear the lie of it, and some may hear it
And believe

Between darkness and a cloudy moon
A treasure tale—the shovel
Bound in hessian against the clank of stony soil
Down to the plain box, its stinking corpse
But only copper on its eyes, only ghosts
And grave critters there and thereabouts

In hazy dawn, farm hands to the fields, slow
Lines fading along tobacco rows, the field boss’s horse
Head down to grass as far
As the cemetery fence, the crows there
Settled on a filthy sheet—the Master
Ripe in the sun

All the property brought out, from house
And crop work, all, beat by bosses
With a knotted leather, at the whipping post
A pool of blood—the lash for all but one
Making for the river, North

And some saw it plain, Hellfire
And the Devil, come to call the tune

A kitchen servant taken from her work, strung
Like a weight of smokehouse ham
From a tree by the cemetery gate
For the Master’s widow, a show the field boss
Said would do, and for the others, as to say
And this for you, another day

Dead shadows walking, gold
To buy his Mother free—a neck-knot slave
Haunting more than thee, Master, to confess for turning out
Cold meat to crows, is he not a Man, his life
More than bloodscent, or pack-dog serendipity

The Freestate road a fever dream, and no one
To say the truth of fields and snakebite rivers

At last the city, the street
And house, its work and welcome, all things past
In pardon and the common benediction

A dream—slow, sad poetry, the rain
Soft as mosses in the trees, and then to awake
To this indifferent grandeur, the Southern sun
Relentless on these acres—cut stalks, the silvered mirror
And the crumbling tomb

On the Richmond road, hooded riders set
Signpost stakes of tulip wood—blow-fly flowers
Each by each, staring at the sky


“Slave auction poster”

Image is in the public domain. Metadata is available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International.

“Examining a Slave for Sale, Virginia, 1830”, Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed March 20, 2023.
Image is in the public domain. Metadata is available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International

Back to the top

2 thoughts on “Estill Pollock: Mason-Dixon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s