Nanih Waiya

The bones we carried
Were more than the bones that bore.
The long dry plains, then the great fathering water.
The dead cities mounded and the forgotten fields, the forests filling back in.
We brought with us our ancestors’ souls and maize seeds,
The rumor of strange beasts and men behind us.
At the leaning hill we stopped and felt the tannin dark waters
Lapping the cypress knees. Sandhill and bottomland, we spread out
And spread names over the rivers and rises, felt
Our speech along the land’s low and gentle lines. We laid
Our mothers’ and our fathers’ bones to rest in the red clayed ground,
Made ourselves native to the place, spoke the voices out from under the earth.

No Matter How Much I Write I Keep Coming Back to One Thing

Our heart’s a crepe myrtle in the earlysummer heat gleam
Bright pink and purpled bits, folded into themselves and drifting
One two three slow seconds down, ground graved of fire ants languid. Yes.
I ease off the shoulder back onto the sunrotting coarse blacktop narrowing down
Muscadine and pine easing in, time’s suddenness.
I drove through the town I grew up in today… well.
We are vessels of decay, and none of our
Works will last. That’s the resounding message in the lay of this land, let me tell you.
Even our memory, the memory of our bones and our blood and the broken banners
Of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers, it’s split to nothing and wasting away,
Its own weight and the weight of the sins of the world. With every hurricane
Another empty space. Ten years, twenty, even the shards of bricks will be swallowed.
I turn my heart to the sun burning off in the west. October comes, and the last bit of color
Is gone. The leaves turn brown, and cling to the weary limbs. Metaphor? It’s so much
Deeper than that, man. All our lives are ruins, return, and red with sword and speech.
Some of us have worse ruins than others. These innerscapes of history—God how
I wish I could escape that word—are the brown leaves clinging, the crepe myrtle heart,
The swathe of the storm, the hidden cotton rows secret,
Our forefathers’ and mothers’ sweat and sins, our birth and others’ scarred redemption.

Rodney Road, Winter

Here the hills are marked as if by great cosmic knives, taking
Deep clean cuts, molding wedding cake of land, the blown out bits
Of the glacial wastes, at the ice’s edge, cold lover jilted,
Washed down the River, liquid myth and sorrow.
If you listen close you might hear the blood murmuring, so close
To being silent and still, at last into that good night.
If you let your skin feel you might breathe the brush of spirits
Tangled in the kudzu vines’ frozen crawl up from the gullies,
Burrowing their dark roots into the loess bluffs, bidding the grey months.
There were flames on the hilltop then,
And you arrive a hundred years later, to look, the cinders washed away. You
Mark the columns, anonymous authored Greek tragedy scene,
Live oak weeps in Spanish moss, branches cracking. And you think
You’ve seen this all before, in a dream,
Or on a screen, maybe, fading into one another, ghost cinema.
Circumambulate the ruins, love, and put your finger to pulse. Know
That there are no more secrets here, except what we keep in ourselves.
Shame, the cold-blooded kind, manacled to heart, flesh,
No place to release it, no deeds of manumission.
We remember all too well, and not at all, as we tread the pilgrim’s road,
No absolution at the end, no word of blessing.
Just the dark roil of the River, choke of flood and silt,
Baptism of death, no fire. Look elsewhere for grace and love.
Here are only ever ruins.

Rural Mississippi Settlement Patterns

We like our distance. Angle things a little crooked,
Don’t line up with the neighbors. Show difference.
Scraggling trees, brush piles, dirt road weave,
A junked truck or two, moldering into earthen rust, loose fencing.
Sometimes the dog down the way wanders up and we watch him
Loping along, gaunt, in his eyes a hunted cast, signs of his owner’s
Maladroitness. And we reaffirm our distance, shoo him off.
When God made the world He made it wide with reason, we figure.
We’d prefer to keep it that way. Then, when death calls,
Put us near, but not too near, our ancestors’ bones. Even then
We’ll need our breathing space.

Fragments. Mississippi. The Eschaton.

i.

Buried under twenty feet of pine mould,
Magnolia cones, and red soil washed out,
Sins of a dozen generations, decomposed,
All these tendriled roots reach into our living flesh.
We are still the scattered bones and blood,
Slave and free. Marbled pillar and rotting red rock pile
Mark their places, where our dark roots reach in,
And draw up our half-hidden present.
The old chains, which once we forged,
Rust close, next dissolve
Into the tannined water over red clay and white sand,
Black depths and inner sanctums,
The crack of bone, and the body in prayer.

ii.

At a certain age
The hearts of loblollies and longleafs go dark,
And rot. The fire takes them. Ash and smoke.
The remnants, transmuted, filter slow
Into the lost seas, the departed mountains, the wasted
Pasts that lapped up our blood, and the blood we spilled.
All trajectories merge.
Yet, things grow more fertile,
Marked by flame and flood—the
Mercy may overtake the Wrath, but both
Remain, this the great dialectic. None
Of us escape, only pass through.
Then—seeds open, and sing.

iii.

Open your mouth, taste
The old life, the new death hanging
After that morning’s rain, bearing a bit
Of those dead uplands to the unending sea. Know.
Other things happen, though. Those saplings’
Taproots run terribly deep. So you too
Must burrow, must find the far down place
Rooted in the life-giving decay and parted hills,
All the way down,
To the first Place,
The no-place. Uncreated.
Have your feet there, and the Fire will not consume you.
Only singe.
Then—
Return, rebirth, and the resurrection of the dead.

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 stiches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on the mangrove swamp- buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry- tome of memory,
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you will board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph- who you were-
will be waiting when you return.

Natasha Trethewey, ‘Theories of Time and Space,’ in Native Guard: Poems, 2006.