Annotated Poetry: Scenes From a Documentary History of Mississippi (Continued)

Scenes From a Documentary History of Mississippi
by Natasha Trethewey

3. Flood

They have arrived on the back
of the swollen river, the barge
dividing it, their few belongings
clustered about their feet. Above them
the National Guard hunkers
on the levee, rifles tight in their fists,
blocking the path to high ground.
One group of black refugees,

the caption tells us, was ordered
to sing
 their passage onto land,
like a chorus of prayer—their tongues
the tongues of dark bells. Here,
the camera finds them still. Posed
as if for a school-day portrait, children
lace fingers in their laps. One boy
gestures allegiance, right hand over
the heart’s charged beating.

The great river all around, the barge
invisible beneath their feet, they fix
on what’s before them: the opening
in the sight of a rifle; the camera’s lens;
the muddy cleft between barge and dry land—
all of it aperture, the captured moment’s
chasm in time. Here, in the angled light
of 1927, they are refugees from history:
the barge has brought them this far;
they are waiting to disembark.

4. You Are Late

The sun is high and the child’s shadow,
almost fully beneath her, touches the sole
of her bare foot on concrete. Even though
it must be hot, she’s takes the step; her goal

to read is the subject of this shot—a book
in her hand, the library closed, the door
just out of reach. Stepping up, she must look
at the two signs, read them slowly once more.

The first one, in pale letters, barely shows
against the white background. Though she will read
Greenwood Public Library for Negroes,
the other, bold letters on slate, will lead

her away, out of the frame, a finger
pointing left. I want to call her, say wait.
But this is history: she can’t linger.
She reads the sign that I read: You are Late.

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