Mudlark Poster No. 146 (2017)

from Wilderness
by Jayne Benjulian

Head Note: In late September 1789, a little more than two months after the storming of the Bastille, Sarah Hemings (or Sally as we know her), 16 at the time, and her brother James, 24, began their journey back to Virginia from Paris, where she had worked for Thomas Jefferson as governess to his youngest daughter and James as chef de cuisine in-training. While in Paris, both siblings earned salaries. Although they might have remained in Paris and claimed a legal right to freedom, they returned to Monticello with Jefferson. Afterwards, Sally lived in one of the small rooms underneath the big house at Monticello adjacent to the south staircase under Jefferson’s bedroom and library. The contradictions inherent in James and Sally’s return mirrored the essential contradictions of Monticello—including two different approaches to the grand house on the mountain: one traversing a portico to an entrance hall; one exposing “dependencies” connected by cellars and passageways where enslaved people worked. Monticello struck me in the way a dream strikes the waking dreamer. Everything is itself and also something else. Everyone in the dream is oneself. The poems here are part of a longer series powered by history, dreams and imaginings. Wilderness is its working title.   — JB

I Imagine Inoculation

A slight pricking of the skin and nothing 
until bedtime when her arm was sore. 

All next day she lay in bed, 
drank tisane, something like tea 

and broth, smelled like lemons.
Third day, no one knocked—

she walked in a park, far off 
mountain called Louis 

after the king, nurses in mist, 
puddings of rice and plum, 

and then, a vile serum dropped her 
into fevered sleep. 

Forty days in the strange ark 
of her body, her own brother 

a ghost in white jacket 
buttoned from waist to neck, 

carried a tray with jam and toast, 

sucre, James said (lifted her chin). 
Seas after, taste swept her back, 

hemming linen, fitting hats
she tasted lemons, drank from porcelain.

He offers her a sip from his own glass

                    Hôtel de Langeac, 1788
Jefferson, returned from the court 

of Louis XVI, burgundy 
wines, bonhomie thick 

as fog, removes his gloves. 

In the kitchen, James Hemings
studies copper pots and béchamel, 

his sister Sally folds
linen for master’s bed. 

James and Sally plot— 
stay in Paris and free 

              then this moment: 

master’s ungloved hand

finds the ruching around her waist— 
he has purchased her linen,

its blooming irises, 

a ship will carry bolts of it 
home to Virginia. 

              The baby of this moment 

will not survive the crossing. 

One day a daughter with her name 
will ride north 

              in master’s carriage.

She will absorb his light,
she will be made of glass, 
she will pass 
out of the story.

Hôtel de Langeac

                    April 1788
Window glass bangs with rain, 
horsemen pass, perhaps Marquis de la Fayette 

rounds the corner, Rue de Berri 
and Champs-Elysées, 

looks up—
girl in the window. By now, 

she has learned 
to speak the language of the court,

by now, his old friend 
has touched her skin,

gown on the floor, spot 
on her Irish linen, she 

will have extra livres for silk. 
The city is trembling.

I Imagine James Hemings

                    Autumn 1801
You’d never know how dull
lilac trees in winter. Cold
sun, we shot at deer.

He had no qualms
about my holding a gun.

            Voyage home (if one could call 
a tomb home), we tried to keep
food down, distracted ourselves 

(detail by detail queen’s gowns),
clutched our dreams.

Point a rifle here—is that odd?
It’s men I’d rather kill.

            Citizens called me Monsieur.
Wine-colored seats, arm
of a jeune fille grazing mine,

her skin dusted with orange-peel
powder, which I taste later,
as I tongue the channel of her back.

If it’s the last thing I hear
I don’t mind. A heart

shattered makes
a muffled sound.

Though I will never meet my son,
he will be called boy by no one.

Beverly Hemings

                  Disappeared into the North, 1822
Folks say he came home—
drifted down in a basket 
tied to a balloon, 
three miles east of Charlottesville 

in a tobacco field, hitched a ride 
with a white couple in a carriage, 
right up to his mama’s door. 

Folks say he wore a fine suit, 
carried cases with velvet hats
and nine yards of French silk 
for his mama. 

Next day, gone again, 
rode out of town in a chariot, 
reins in his hands. 

Stormy wind blew out of the north 
a great cloud. 


She read: letters, pamphlets, labels, lists, Notes 
on the State of Virginia, learned her fine mixture (he noted),

the expression of every passion by greater or less suffusions 
of color were preferable to eternal monotony of black. I note, 

she memorized the faces of her palest children, sent them North
in master’s carriage (family witness noted).

Long before children, her feet in sand at Cowes, tide
tugging backward and forward, salt on her lips, did she note

she was the second Hemings to taste sea salt, after her grandmother, 
last Hemings to have no European blood? (Note: name

from Captain Hemings: I want my daughter back), 
Captain Hemings returning to England, shuddered at the note

America had struck on its terrible instrument. Had the winds
blown another way, history would not have taken note 

of Sarah Hemings; and youngest child of the youngest child 
of the czar’s serf in tobacco fields at Popov would be noting 

here another name, not Jayne. Nothing is true, 
it is true I have dreamed. I sign my name to these notes. 

Jayne Benjulian is the author of Five Sextillion Atoms. Her poems and essays appear widely in literary and performance journals in the U.S. and abroad. She was an Ossabaw Island Project Fellow; teaching fellow at Emory University; lecturer in the Graduate Program in Theater at San Francisco State University; and Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Lyon, France. In addition, she served as chief speechwriter at Apple; investigator for the public defender in King County, WA; and director of new play development at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. Her MFA is from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. You can find out more about her and her work by visiting her website at:

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