Trethewey: Annotated Poetry

March 1863

I 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(1) —

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(2).  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(3). 

1. Soldiers are worried about their former home lives, and what has become of them.

2. They fear they will die, and send photos home to family.

3. Hardtack is a tasteless cracker-like food for the soldiers.

April 1863

When men die, we eat their share of hardtack

trying not to recall their hollow sockets(1),

the worm-stitch of their cheeks.  Today we buried

the last of our dead from Pascagoula(2),

and those who died retreating to our ship —

white sailors in blue(3) firing upon us

as if we were the enemy.  I’d thought

the fighting over, then watched a man fall

beside me, knees-first as in prayer, then

another, his arms outstretched as if borne

upon the cross.  Smoke that rose from each gun

seemed a soul departing.  The Colonel said:

an unfortunate incident; said:

their names shall deck the page of history(4).

1. refers to the decomposing soldiers

2. Pascagoula was the site of a naval blockade, where the first all-black regiment fought (Native Guard)

3. Other Union troops firing on retreating black men.

4. War memorials placed around the site of Pascagoula that denote the men who fought there.

June 1863

Some names shall deck the page of history

as it is written on stone.  Some will not.

Yesterday, word came of colored troops, dead

on the battlefield at Port Hudson(1); how

General Banks was heard to say I have

no dead there, and left them, unclaimed(2).  Last night,

I dreamt their eyes still open — dim, clouded

as the eyes of fish washed ashore, yet fixed —

staring back at me.  Still, more come today

eager to enlist.  Their bodies — haggard

faces, gaunt limbs — bring news of the mainland.

Starved, they suffer like our prisoners.  Dying,

they plead for what we do not have to give(3).

Death makes equals of us all: a fair master.

1. Port Hudson was the site of the longest siege in American history.

2. Black soldiers who were killed and left in the open, unclaimed by their own army.

3. Food for soldiers became incredibly scarce.

August 1864

Dumas(1) was a fair master to us all.

He taught me to read and write: I was a man-

servant, if not a man.  At my work,

I studied natural things — all manner

of plants, birds I draw now in my book: wren,

willet, egret, loon(2).  Tending the gardens,

I thought only to study live things, thought

never to know so much about the dead.

Now I tend Ship Island graves(3), mounds like dunes

that shift and disappear.  I record names,

send home simple notes, not much more than how

and when — an official duty(4).  I’m told

it’s best to spare most detail, but I know

there are things which must be accounted for.

1. Famous French writer… here

2. Different types of birds

3. Ship Island is a place where the primary troop garrison were Native Guards

4. Occupation of writing home to the families of the deceased.


These are things which must be accounted for:

slaughter under the white flag of surrender —

black massacre at Fort Pillow(1); our new name,

the Corps d’Afrique(2) — words that take the native

from our claim; mossbacks(3) and freedmen — exiles

in their own homeland; the diseased, the maimed,

every lost limb, and what remains: phantom

ache(4), memory haunting an empty sleeve;

the hog-eaten at Gettysburg, unmarked

in their graves; all the dead letters, unanswered;

untold stories of those that time will render

mute(5).  Beneath battlefields, green again,

the dead molder — a scaffolding of bone

we tread upon, forgetting.  Truth be told.

1. Fort Pillow

2. Changed name of Native Guards, made to no longer include “native”

3. Mossback= extremely old-fashioned person

4. The sensation of pain in an amputated limb

5. Lack of proper memorial for soldiers who died at Gettysburg

Additional notes:

Each poem contains 14 lines (sonnet) and each line contains 10 syllables

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