David Dabydeen’s “Turner” (1994) is well-known as an ekphrastic response to J. M. W. Turner’s Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon Coming On (1840) and firmly established as an important achievement in the field of postcolonial Caribbean poetry. While such a status is wholly justified, it is the premise of this essay that the critical privileging of Dabydeen’s text as the horizon for The Slave Ship’s poetic legacy is not without its drawbacks. The most serious of these is that it has resulted in a certain blindness towards another long and complex ekphrastic poem on Turner’s masterpiece that emanates from an American rather than a Caribbean literary context and that was published in the same year as Dabydeen’s—William B. Patrick’s “The Slave Ship.” It is not this essay’s purpose to speculate on why “Turner,” written by a black Caribbean author, has enjoyed such critical prestige while “The Slave Ship,” written by an author who is a white American, has been rendered critically invisible, nor is the concern to adjudicate between the aesthetic merits of the two poems, which would seem to have been composed entirely independently of one another. The aim, rather, is to bring the transatlantic encounter between Patrick’s text and Turner’s painting into critical view for the first time and demonstrate the ways in which it extends and enriches the current understanding of contemporary ekphrastic poetry that takes the Middle Passage as its subject.
KEYWORDS: William B. Patrick’s “The Slave Ship,” ekphrastic poetry, Turner’s The Slave Ship; Zong atrocity, Middle Passage; transatlantic exchange.