poetry
autumn/winter 2018

Meditation at Decatur Square

by Natasha Trethewey

Photo: Confederate monument at Decatur Square in Decatur, GA.

I.

 

In which I try to decipher

                               the story it tells, 

this syntax of monuments 

                flanking the old courthouse: 

                               here, a rough outline 

like the torso of a woman 

                great with child— 

                               a steatite boulder from which 

                the Indians girdled the core 

                                           to make of it a bowl, 

                               and left in the stone a wound; here,

 

the bronze figure of Thomas Jefferson, 

                               quill in hand, inventing 

                a language of freedom, 

                                           a creation story—

                               his hand poised at the word 

                happiness. There is not yet an ending, 

                               no period—the single mark,

intended or misprinted, that changes

                the meaning of everything. 

 

Here too, for the Confederacy, 

                               an obelisk, oblivious 

                in its name—a word 

                               that also meant the symbol 

to denote, in ancient manuscripts, 

                the spuriouscorrupt, or doubtful;

                                           at its base, forged 

                               in concrete, a narrative 

                of valor, virtue, states’ rights

 

Here, it is only the history of a word, 

                               obelisk,

                that points us toward 

                               what’s not there; all of it 

palimpsest, each mute object 

                repeating a single refrain:

 

                remember this.

 

 

II.

 

Listen, there is another story I want 

                this place to tell: I was a child here, 

 

traveling to school through the heart of town

                by train, emerging into the light 

 

of the square, in the shadow of the courthouse,

                a poetics of grief already being written. 

 

This is the place to which I vowed 

                I’ d never return, hallowed ground now, 

 

a vault of memory, the new courthouse enshrining 

                the story of my mother’s death—

 

her autopsy, the police reports, even 

                the smallest details: how first 

 

her ex-husband’s bullet entered 

                her raised left hand, shattering the finger 

 

on which she’ d worn her rings; how tidy 

                her apartment that morning, nothing 

 

out of place but for, on the kitchen counter, 

                a folding knife, a fifty-cent roll of coins.

 

 

III.

 

Once, a poet wrote: books live in the mind

like honey inside a bee hive. When I read

those words to my brother, after his release,

this is what he said: Inside the hive of prison,

my mind lived in books. Inside everything 

was a story unfinished: the letters her wrote

for inmates who could not write, who waited 

each day for an answer to arrives; the library

with too few books, the las pages ripped out

so someone could roll a cigarette. To get by,

he read those books, pouring new endings

where the stories stopped. Inside, everything

was possibility, each graving a  pathway, one

word closer to the day he'd walk out of prison

into the rest of his story—a happy one or not,

depending on where you marked the ending.

IV.

I have counted the years   I am 

a counter of years  ten  twenty 

 

thirty now   So much gone and yet 

she lives in my mind like a book 

 

to which I keep returning   even 

as the story remains the same 

 

her ending    the space she left

a wound   a womb   a bowl hewn

 

"Meditation at Decatur Square from MONUMENT: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright © 2018 by Natasha Trethewey. Used by permission of Houghton

Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. 

Natasha Trethewey served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States (2012–2014). She is the author of five collections of poetry including Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard —for which she was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize—Thrall, and Monument: Poems New and Selected. Trethewey is currently a professor of English at Northwestern University.  

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