Annotated Poems: Miscegenation by Natasha Trethewey

Miscegenation

In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong – mis in Mississippi.

A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same
as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.

Faulkner’s Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name
for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.

My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.
I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.

When I turned 33 my father said, It’s your Jesus year – you’re the same
age he was when he died.
 It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.

I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name –
though I’m not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.

“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.

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.

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.

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Annotating Poems: “Theories of Time and Space” and “Incident”

“THEORIES OF TIME AND SPACE”

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion – dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches Continue reading

Annotated Poetry

Pastoral

In the dream, I am with the Fugitive

Poets. Were gathered for a photograph.

Behind us, the skyline of Atlanta

Hidden by the photographer’s backdrop-

a lush pasture, green, full of soft-eyed cows

lowing, a chant that sounds like no, no.  Yes,

I say to the glass of bourbon I’m offered.

We’re lining up no – Robert Penn Warren,

his voice just audible above the drone

of bulldozers, telling us where to stand.

Say “race,” the photographer croons. I’m in

blackface again when the flash freezes us.

My father’s white, I tell them, and rural.

You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it? Continue reading

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). 

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