29 September 2013

The words that shadow us

                               by Natasha Trethewey


It rained the whole time we were laying her down;
Rained from church to grave when we put her down.
The suck of mud at our feet was a hollow sound.

When the preacher called out I held up my hand;
When he called for a witness I raised my hand --
Death stops the body's work, the soul's a journeyman.

The sun came out when I turned to walk away,
Glared down on me as I turned and walked away --
My back to my mother, leaving her where she lay.

The road going home was pocked with holes,
That home-going road's always full of holes;
Though we slow down, time's wheel still rolls.

          I wander now among names of the dead:
          My mother's name, stone pillow for my head.


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.

Faulker'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.


I have lain down in to 1970, into the bed
my parents will share for only a few more years.
Early evening, they have not yet turned from each other
in sleep, their bodies curved -- parentheses
framing the separate lives they'll wake to. Dreaming,
I am again the child with too many questions --
the endless why and why and why
my mother cannot answer, he mouth closed, a gesture
toward her future: cold lips stitched shut.
The lines in my young father's face deepen
toward an expression of grief. I have come home
from the schoolyard with the words that shadow us
in the small Southern town -- peckerwood and nigger
lover; half-breed and zebra -- words that take shape
outside us. We're huddled on the tiny island of bed,
quiet in the language of blood; the house unsteady
on its cinderblock haunches, sinking deeper
into the muck of ancestry. Oil lamps flicker
around us -- our shadows, dark glyphs on the wall,
bigger and stranger than we are.

From Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard: Poems, 2006.

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