Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol.21  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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For the Last Man on Portsmouth Island
Henry Pigott (1896–1971) was the last male resident of Portsmouth Island, North
Carolina. He was a descendant of a family that had once been enslaved there. When
he died, the two remaining residents, elderly white women, left their island home.

Every morning must have seemed a revelation:
the way the warm air unraveled as summer passed,

the satisfactions of the wind. Incessant and always wide.
Whatever had not changed with storms and tides.

And since there are some forms of prayer that ask us
to come inside the text, to feel the ancient

sun, to smell the dust kicked up by crowds
I want to see myself there with Henry Pigott

in another holy story, especially in his last days,
to see the salt-stunted cedars

as he once did, all the wind-bent pines.
Spartina and needlerush, gold and green above the marsh.

Unnamed tangle along the track from the white church
where his sister lay. And all the tasks he’d taken

for himself: like a minor god who brings the news,
he poled his skiff out into the shallows

to meet the mail. He checked each day on
Miss Elma, Miss Marian, an elderly woman and her niece,

both so old they looked like sisters now.
He was witness to this long erasing of the past,

this sun-worn space of abandoned buildings, some
still filled with things once loved and left behind,

like the old photo of a child visible
through the window of a house on Henry’s walk.

He never failed to greet that boy whose name
he had forgotten. Henry seems to me like a nurse tree,

thorny huisache or mesquite in a desert far from here,
those branches that offer shelter, shade

to a young saguaro, allowing it to last.
On the day he was buried, someone recalled, it was

blowing northeast, windy, cold. Somehow, those
who’d gone away knew he understood their losses.

Somehow, they believed he carried their grief.
Home again, someone who returned

had said. Oh, Henry, caretaker to them all—
perhaps it is not too late to follow you

one last time down the tender path
toward your yellow house,

where you knew what it meant to live
at the watery, windy edge,

where paradise is always small and personal
and cannot last—

and cloud-white gulls still hover low along the shore,
suspended there, as always, in wild delight.  

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