South

By Natasha Trethewey

I returned to a stand of pines,
bone-thin phalanx

flanking the roadside, tangle
of understory—a dialectic of dark

and light—and magnolias blossoming
like afterthought: each flower

a surrender, white flags draped
among the branches. I returned

to land’s end, the swath of coast
clear cut and buried in sand:

mangrove, live oak, gulfweed
razed and replaced by thin palms—

palmettos—symbols of victory
or defiance, over and over

marking this vanquished land. I returned
to a field of cotton, hallowed ground—

as slave legend goes—each boll
holding the ghosts of generations:

those who measured their days
by the heft of sacks and lengths

of rows, whose sweat flecked the cotton plants
still sewn into our clothes.

I returned to a country battlefield
where colored troops fought and died—

Port Hudson where their bodies swelled
and blackened beneath the sun—unburied

until earth’s green sheet pulled over them,
unmarked by any headstones.

Where the roads, buildings, and monuments
are named to honor the Confederacy,

where that old flag still hangs, I return
to Mississippi, state that made a crime

of me—mulatto, half-breed—native
in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.
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