“Pilgrimage” – Natasha Trethewey

Here, the Mississippi carved

            its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.

            Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city

            as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up

            above the river’s bend—where now

the Yazoo fills the Mississippi’s empty bed.

            Here, the dead stand up in stone, white

marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand

            on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;

they must have seemed like catacombs,

            in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,

candlelit, underground. I can see her

            listening to shells explode, writing herself

into history, asking what is to become

            of all the living things in this place?

This whole city is a grave. Every spring—

            Pilgrimage—the living come to mingle

with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders

            in the long hallways, listen all night

to their silence and indifference, relive

            their dying on the green battlefield.

At the museum, we marvel at their clothes—

            preserved under glass—so much smaller

than our own, as if those who wore them

            were only children. We sleep in their beds,

the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped

            in flowers—funereal—a blur

of petals against the river’s gray.

            The brochure in my room calls this

living history. The brass plate on the door reads

            Prissy’s Room. A window frames

the river’s crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream,

            the ghost of history lies down beside me,

rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

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