Poetry Month

Read an excerpt of Unbound by Ann E. Burg

Emily Morrow  //  Apr 9, 2018

Read an excerpt of Unbound by Ann E. Burg

April is Poetry Month, and we're sharing an excerpt of a book each week that celebrates the beauty and power of poetry. This week, start reading Unbound, a novel in verse by Ann E. Burg.

About the book: From the award-winning author of All the Broken Pieces and Serafina's Promise comes a new novel-in-verse that is a gripping, transcendent story about a little-known piece of slave history.

The day Grace is called from the slave cabins to work in the Big House, Mama makes her promise to keep her eyes down. Uncle Jim warns her to keep her thoughts tucked private in her mind or they could bring a whole lot of trouble and pain.

But the more Grace sees of the heartless Master and hateful Missus, the more a rightiness voice clamors in her head-asking how come white folks can own other people, sell them on the auction block, and separate families forever. When that voice escapes without warning, it sets off a terrible chain of events that prove Uncle Jim's words true. Suddenly, Grace and her family must flee deep into the woods, where they brave deadly animals, slave patrollers, and the uncertainty of ever finding freedom.

With candor and compassion, Ann E. Burg sheds light on a startling chapter of American history—the remarkable story of runaways who sought sanctuary in the Great Dismal Swamp—and creates a powerful testament to the right of every human to be free.  

Start reading: 

When Mama tells me
I’m goin
to the Big House,
she makes me promise
to always be good,
to listen to the Missus
n never talk back,
to lower my eyes
n say, Yes, ma’am,
no, ma’am,
n to not speak
less spoken to first. 

She tells me bout
the new dress
I’m sure to get—
n sweet muffins
every mornin,
she says,
pullin the thread
from Thomas’s
old baby gown. 

I wind the limp thread
round a stick, slow
n careful so not to break it.
I like soft clothes
n sweet muffins,
but not if it means
leavin Mama.

Since I was little,
Mama’s been tellin me,
You keep those eyes
lookin up—
that’s where the good Lord
n His angels live.

So how come now
she’s changin her mind?

Promise you’ll keep
your eyes down, she says.

I promise.

Promise you’ll keep
your mouth closed.

I promise.

Promise you won’t
talk back.
Promise you’ll
keep your
thoughts n questions

n suddenly,
like a clap of thunder
in a sweet blue sky,
all my promisin

starts feelin like
a fistful of thorns
is scratchin my brain.

I promise. I promise—
n then

I drop to the dirt floor
n crunch into a ball. 

I won’t go! I say.
I want to stay with you!



Aunt Sara stands
in the cabin doorway.
Willy’s playin with the hem
of her dress,
n she’s holdin Thomas
in her arms.
Mama shoos em away
n kneels down.
She tugs me apart
n takes me into her arms.
I pull away.

I won’t go, I cry.
I won’t leave Uncle Jim
n his night stories,
or the sound
of his soft singin
when he tends
our moonlight garden.

I won’t go. I kick.
I won’t leave
little Thomas n Willy.
Aunt Sara’s old.
She can sing to em
when Mama works
in the fields, but
who’ll stand over em
wavin a dried leaf
to give em a breeze
when they nap?

Who’ll play with em
n chase em
into a lump of giggles
when they wake? 

I won’t go! I won’t go!

I pound n thrash,
scream n stomp.




Mama wraps
her arms
tight round mine.

My sweet baby child,
she whispers.
My sweet baby child.

The wetness on her face
mingles with my tears—
n tastes like blood.



Uncle Jim says Mama’s
the prettiest mama in the county.
Her arms n legs may be bony
as kindlin,
he says, laughin,
but she’s got the softest eyes
n the kindest heart.

I wish I had soft brown eyes
like Mama’s, n skin
what’s dark n smooth like hers,
stead of light blue eyes
n pale skin. 

Well, Grace,
you have my curls,
Mama always says,
kissin my hair.
My baby’s beautiful
jus the way she is.

Mama tries to be cheery
even when she’s tired.
Aunt Sara says that’s cause
the good Lord
put Mama on this earth
to remind folks
there’s still goodness in the world.
I agree n Uncle Jim does too.

Uncle Jim is Thomas n Willy’s daddy.
I don’t have a daddy.

Course, Aunt Sara says
everybody’s got a daddy—
I jus never laid eyes on mine.
I never heared him sing
or feeled him liftin me to the moon
n laughin like Uncle Jim does
with Willy n Thomas.

It’s my Aunt Sara
what’s been helpin Mama
take care of me
since I was a baby.
She’s not really my aunt,
but Mama says
the folks what love you,
what hold you
n soothe you,
what worry bout you
n make sure you’s clothed n fed,
Mama says,
these folks is your family.

She says Uncle Jim’s my daddy
in all the ways what count.
I only call him Uncle Jim
cause that’s what I called him
before he jumped the broom
n married my mama.



Mama says we got two days
before I leave for the Big House.
Says it’s no use
stampin our feet or cryin.
Says there’s things we can change
n things we can’t.

You’s only goin up the hill,
she says, smilin.
But her voice quivers,
n a sorrowin tear clings
to her bottom lash.

Up the hill don’t seem far,
but Master Allen lives
up the hill,
n if you cross Master Allen,
he might send you away
like he sent away Uncle John.


Read more about Unbound by Ann E. Burg here!