Annotated Poetry: Scenes From a Documentary History of Mississippi


Scenes From a Documentary History of Mississippi
by Natasha Trethewey

1. King Cotton, 1907
From every corner of the photograph, flags wave down
the main street in Vicksburg. Stacked to form an arch,
the great bales of cotton rise up from the ground

like a giant swell, a wave of history flooding the town.
When Roosevelt arrives–a parade–the band will march,
and from every street corner, flags wave down.

Words on a banner, Cotton, America’s King, have the sound
of progress. This is two years before the South’s countermarch–
the great bolls of cotton, risen up from the ground,

infested with boll weevils–a plague, biblical, all around.
Now, negro children ride the bales, clothes stiff with starch.
From up high, in the photograph, they wave flags down

for the President who will walk through the arch, bound
for the future, his back to us. The children, on their perch–
those great bales of cotton rising up from the ground–

stare out at us. Cotton surrounds them, a swell, a great mound
bearing them up, back toward us. From the arch,
from every corner of the photograph, flags wave down,
and great bales of cotton rise up from the ground.

2. Glyph, Aberdeen 1913
The child’s head droops as if in sleep.
Stripped to the waist, in profile, he’s balanced
on the man’s lap. The man, gaunt in his overalls,
cradles the child’s thin arm—the sharp elbow, white
signature of skin and bone. He pulls it forward
to show the deformity—the humped back, curve
of spine—punctuating the routine hardships
of their lives: how the child must follow him
into the fields, haunting the long hours
slumped beside a sack, his body asking
how much cotton? or in the kitchen, leaning
into the icebox, how much food? or
kneeling beside him at the church house,
why, Lord, why? They pose as if to say
Look, this is the outline of suffering: 
the child shouldering it—a mound
like dirt heaped on a grave.

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