Truth be told, I do not want to forget
anything of former life: the landscape’s
song of bondage₁- dirge₂ in the river’s throat
where it churns₃ into the Gulf₄, wind in trees
choked with vines. I thought to carry with me
want of freedom though I had been freed,
remembrance not constant recollection.
Yes: I was born a slave, at harvest time,
in the Parish of Ascension₅; I’ve reached
thirty-three₆,₇ with history of one younger
inscribed upon my back. I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory- flawed, changeful- that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave₈.
1-The state of being a slave
2-A lament for the dead, especially one forming part of a funeral right
3-Agitate or turn to stir
4-Gulf of Mississippi, near where Trethewey grew up
6-When turning 33 it is said to be ones “Jesus year”
7-number of lashings
8-each one is worse for the slave, but it becomes less of a big deal
For the slave, having a master sharpens
the bend into work, the way the sergeant
moves us now to perfect battalion drill₁,
dress parade₂. Still, we’re called to supply units-
not infantry₃- and so we dig trenches,
haul burdens for the army no less heavy
than before. I heard the colonel call it
nigger work₄. Half rations make our work
familiar still. We take those things we need
from the Confederates’ abandoned homes:
salt, sugar, even this journal, near full
with someone else’s words, overlapped now,
crosshatched₅ beneath mine. On every page,
his story intersecting with my own.
2-Formal parade of sufficient ceremonial importance for the wearing of dress uniform
3-Soldiers marching or fighting on foot
4-derogatory term for the work that blacks were forced to do
5-Method of line drawing that describes light and shadow
O how history intersects- my own
berth upon a ship called the Northern Star₁
and I’m delivered into a new life,
Fort Massachusetts₂: a great irony-
both path and destination of freedom
I’d not dared to travel. Here, now, I walk
ankle-deep in sand, fly-bitten, nearly
smothered by heat, and yet I can look out
upon the Gulf and see the surf breaking,
tossing the ships, the great gunboats bobbing
on the water. And are we not the same,
slaves in the hands of the master, destiny?
-night sky red with the promise of fortune,
Dawn pink as new flesh: healing, unfettered.
1-Prominent star that lies closest in the sky to the north celestial pole, and which appears directly overhead to an observer at the Earths North Pole.
2-Fort on West Ship Island along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It was built following the war of 1812.
Today, dawn red as warning₁. Unfettered₂
supplies, stacked on the beach at our landing,
washed away in the storm that rose too fast,
caught us unprepared Later, as we worked,
I joined in the low singing someone raised
to pace us, and felt a bond in labor
I had not known. It was then a dark man
removed his shirt, revealed his scars, crosshatched
like the lines in this journal, on his back.
It was he who remarked at how the ropes
cracked like whips on the sand, made us take note
of the wild dance of a tent loosed by wind.
We watched and learned. Like any shrewd master,
we know now to tie down what we will keep₃.
1-“Red at night, sailors delight. Red in the morning, sailors take warning.”
2-Release from restraint or inhibition
3-learned from mistakes
We know it is our duty now to keep
white men as prisoners- rebel soldiers,
would-be masters. We’re all bondsmen₁ here, each
to the other. Freedom has gotten them
captivity. For us, a conscription₂
we have chosen- jailors to those who still
would have slaves. They are cautious, dreading
the sight of us. Some neither read nor write,
are laid too low and have few words to send
but those I give them. Still, they are wary
of a negro writing, taking down letters.
X binds them to the page₃- a mute symbol
like the cross on a grave₄. I suspect they fear
I’ll listen, put something else down in ink.
1-A person who stands surely for a bond
2-The compulsory enlistment of people in some sort of national service, most often military service
4-final, no going back
I’ll listen, put down in ink what I know
they labor to say between silences
too big for words: worry for beloveds-
My Dearest, how are you getting along–
what has become of their small plots of land-
did you harvest enough food to put by?
They long for the comfort of former lives-
I see you as you were, waving goodbye.
Some send photographs-a likeness in case
the body can’t return. Others dictate
harsh facts of this war: The hot air carries
the stench of limbs, rotten in the bone pit.
Flies swarm- a black cloud. We hunger, grow weak.
When men die, we eat their share of hardtack₁.
- A simple type of cracker or biscuit, made from flour, water, and sometimes salt.
Other notes about this poem:
-This poem is in the form of a sonnet, which has a series linked by last line becoming the first line.
-There are 14 lines per stanza and 10 stanzas overall
-There are 10 syllables per line