Joshua Bennett

Didn’t Old Pharaoh Get Lost in The Red Sea: theorizing amnesia in Afro-diasporic maritime literature 

Keywords: absence, being-for-another, undertow, thalassophobia, phantom limb


Though there has certainly been a recent wave of scholarship in the field of hydropoetics which attends to the necessarily fraught relationship between writers of the African diaspora and their encounters with the sea, many of which are watermarked by the serrated memory of the Middle Passage and its afterlife, what has heretofore been left largely under-theorized are the ways in which  these very same writers might encounter the sea as a trick mirror against which they are able to craft new worlds out of black, wet infinity like Elohim in Genesis 1 or a child in a darkroom. Thus, this poem is interested  in using the moment the speaker looks into the sea for the first time on a family trip to the Bahamas, thousands of miles away from the unknowable depth of his block, which is its own kind of benthos, as a springboard for thinking about what it means to never be able to retract what is lost (even a name or less heavy tongue) and what that sort of truancy can make of a seven-year-old who, even then, could not shake the feeling that his legs did not belong to him.  

Questions for Jonah on the occasion of his unfortunate tenure in the belly of a giant fish

What difference is there
between the blackness
of a fish’s mouth
and the blackness of a sea?
Or that of its shadow arrowing
through the deep?  

Where did you sleep?

Which day felt the most like slow gravity?

Were you caught,  shivering trapeze,
somewhere between throat and acid,
begging for a breath strong enough to end it all?

Or did you find a way to make
the days flow
smooth, even amidst all that empty?

Were your prayers ever empty rooms?

Was a room waiting for you down there? If so, did this room feel,
fit like a prayer?

Did you fit in with the food? 

Were there whole ships
full of men less convicted than thee
trapped betwixt the bones of the beast?

Was this, tangible proof of your courage,
its own sort of salvation?

Is this what kept you buoyant, bright,
after three days dead with no one,
not even a tomb, to hold your name? 


When you were finally freed,
did the world feel smaller?

Less worthy of rescue?  

Joshua Bennett

Joshua Bennett is a third-year doctoral candidate in the English Department at Princeton University, Callaloo Fellow, budding essayist, and, as of this summer, teacher of 8th grade Composition. His poetry has either been published, or is forthcoming, in Poetry Northeast, Wasafiri, Disability Studies Quarterly, Clarion and Brooklyn Quarterly. When he is not writing or performing, Joshua spends much of his time watching the hit Cartoon Network series, Adventure Time with Finn and Jake, listening to David Ruffin, and practicing his free throws. He currently shoots about 52% from the line. He’s working on it.

(Photo credit: Niran Vinod)