Native Guard poetic forms

Native Guard

November 1862

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

December 1862

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 work. 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.

1-Army March

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

January 1863

O how history intersects- my own

berth upon a ship called the Northern Star

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.

January 1863

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

February 1863

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

March 1863

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 hardtack.


  1. 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

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