Poet delves into a Civil War spy’s hidden history

There’s so much we don’t know about Mary Bowser.

We only have a scant portrait of her early life, but we know that she was baptized in 1846 and was a slave in the home of John Van Lew in Richmond, Virginia. After his death, Van Lew’s wife and daughter Elizabeth freed Mary and the family’s other slaves.

That’s where the story that we know begins. As the Civil War began in 1861, Bowser — then married and living outside Richmond — was still corresponding with Elizabeth, whose quirky personality and pro-Union politics had earned her the local nickname “Crazy Bet.” Bowser began carrying information to Elizabeth from the Confederate White House in Richmond, providing a vital link in the spy network that Elizabeth would build over the course of the war.

Now, Bowser reappears in “My Heart Like a Needle Ever True Turns to the Maid of Ebon Hue,” a new poem by Anaïs Duplan.

Duplan was born in Haiti, where she said Creole dominates everyday life and French is a marker of the upper class. This impact of French colonialism on language left her with specific ideas about what constituted a “good” poem, she said.

“I realized that I had all these ideas about what a poem should be or what it should sound like, and in many ways I was trying to cater to that and use poetic language,” she said. “I think it was a question of diction, almost, that I felt that in order for a language to earn its keep in a poem, it had to be elevated.”

But in writing Bowser’s story, she realized she didn’t need to couch the meaning of her words. “Whatever I have to say, I mean to say in the way that I feel it, even if I’m afraid of not being heard because of how I’ve said it,” she said.

The poem is named for a line from Lewis Latimer’s poem “Ebon Venus,” in which he writes “My heart like needles ever true / Turns to the maid of ebon hue.”

Duplan juxtaposes this celebration of black womanhood with the image of Bowser as a male, Christ-like figure, presiding over a religious crowd. One line follows the scene as “Mary Bowser / surrounded by wimmen ‘n’ chillun ‘n’ chickens ‘n’ cows / held up his arms and prayed a massive prayer for us all.”

Duplan said she wanted to examine what it means to conflate this historical moment with the archetype of a male religious figure. “What does it mean to make Mary Bowser into a holy man?” she said.

You can read the poem, or hear Duplan read it, below.

My Heart Like a Needle Ever True Turns to the Maid of Ebon Hue

Ex-humans walk the earth in pleasurable garb,
lllllllllllin leather church shoes, in wrinkled-up sun hats.
I was the Buddha by the base of the tree last night,
lllllllllllwhite bellied Buddha in luxurious blackface.
I dressed myself up for the Halloween massacre
llllllllllland came back in the morning as a TV reporter.
There were no casualties, formally speaking,
lllllllllllbut mishaps there were plenty. Amid the gunfire,
a man named Mary Bowser stopped to reflect
lllllllllllon two honeybees mating. Release is everyone’s
dream, he said. The drones want released as badly as I
lllllllllllwant to get out of this bear costume. Mary Bowser
surrounded by wimmen ‘n’ chillun ‘n’ chickens ‘n’ cows
lllllllllllheld up his arms and prayed a massive prayer for us all.
One chil’ lifted up its head out from underneath Mary
lllllllllllBowser’s armpit and let out a most deflated cry.
A wummun took the chil’ head in her hands
llllllllllland snapped its neck quick. Mary Bowser bawled
like a holy man. The gun it danced it danced it danced
lllllllllllbut no one saw the gunmen. I could feel the brawny
hair on Margaret’s head as we huddled together
lllllllllllby the palm fronds in the corner of the Enterprise office.
Above us, a man and a woman were pictured renting
llllllllllla car, forever. Ex-humans like photographs of other
ex-humans. I danced and danced and danced, the gun,
llllllllllllike a fieldhand in ecstasy. Me and Margaret know
the reign of bullets will come down upon our
lllllllllllgod-fearing bodies. We pray a fierce prayer
like two strange fruits in winter.

Anaïs Duplan is the author of Take This Stallion (Brooklyn Arts Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in Hyperallergic, Boston Review, The Journal, [PANK], and other publications. She is the director of the Center for Afrofuturist Studies, an artist residency program for new media artists of color. She lives in Iowa City, where she is an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This poem was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Journal.