Sterling Brown: Sam Smiley

A poem a day
International WWI Poetry Month

Sam Smiley

Sterling Brown (USA, 1932)


The whites had taught him how to rip
A Nordic belly with a thrust
Of bayonet, had taught him how
To transmute Nordic flesh to dust.

And a surprising fact had made
Belated impress on his mind:
The shrapnel bursts and poison gas
Were inexplicably colour blind.

He picked up, from the difficult
But striking lessons of the war,
Some truths that he could not forget,
Though inconceivable before.

And through the lengthy vigils, stuck
In never-drying stinking mud,
He was held up by dreams of one
Chockfull of laughter, hot of blood.


On the return Sam Smiley cheered
The dirty steerage with his dance,
Hot-stepping boy! Soon he would see
The girl who beat all girls in France.

He stopped buckdancing when he reached
The shanties at his journey’s end;
He found his sweetheart in the jail,
And took white lightening for his friend.

One night the woman whose full voice
Had chortled so, was put away
Into a narrow gaping hole;
Sam sat beside till break of day.

He had been told what man it was
Whose child the girl had had to kill,
Who best knew why her laugh was dumb,
Who best knew why her blood was still.

And he remembered France, and how
A human life was dunghill cheap,
And so he sent a rich white man
His woman’s company to keep.


The mob was in fine fettle, yet
The dogs were stupid-nosed, and day
Was far spent when the men drew round
The scrawny woods where Smiley lay.

The oaken leaves drowsed prettily,
The moon shone down benignly there;
And big Sam Smiley, King Buckdancer,
Buckdanced on the midnight air.