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Elegy for the Native Guards

Now that the salt of their blood

Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea . . .

—Allen Tate

We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead

trailing the boat—streamers, noisy fanfare—

all the way to Ship Island. What we see

first is the fort, its roof of grass, a lee—

half reminder of the men who served there—

a weathered monument to some of the dead.

Inside we follow the ranger, hurried

though we are to get to the beach. He tells

of graves lost in the Gulf, the island split

in half when Hurricane Camille hit,

shows us casemates, cannons, the store that sells

souvenirs, tokens of history long buried.

The Daughters of the Confederacy

has placed a plaque here, at the fort’s entrance—

each Confederate soldier’s name raised hard

in bronze; no names carved for the Native Guards—

2nd Regiment, Union men, black phalanx.

What is monument to their legacy?

All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—

water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,

and we listen for what the waves intone.

Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,

round, unfinished, half open to the sky,

the elements—wind, rain—God’s deliberate eye.


Here, she said, put this on your head.

She handed me a hat.

You ’bout as white as your dad,

and you gone stay like that.

Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down

around each bony ankle,

and I rolled down my white knee socks

letting my thin legs dangle,

circling them just above water

and silver backs of minnows

flitting here then there between

the sun spots and the shadows.

This is how you hold the pole

to cast the line out straight.

Now put that worm on your hook,

throw it out and wait.

She sat spitting tobacco juice

into a coffee cup.

Hunkered down when she felt the bite,

jerked the pole straight up

reeling and tugging hard at the fish

that wriggled and tried to fight back.

A flounder, she said, and you can tell

’cause one of its sides is black.

The other side is white, she said.

It landed with a thump.

I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,

switch sides with every jump.

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

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over

the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on a 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 board the boat for Ship Island,

someone will take your picture:

the photograph—who you were—

will be waiting when you return


We mourn the broken things, chair legs

wrenched from their seats, chipped plates,

the threadbare clothes. We work the magic

of glue, drive the nails, mend the holes.

We save what we can, melt small pieces

of soap, gather fallen pecans, keep neck bones

for soup. Beating rugs against the house,

we watch dust, lit like stars, spreading

across the yard. Late afternoon, we draw

the blinds to cool the rooms, drive the bugs

out. My mother irons, singing, lost in reverie.

I mark the pages of a mail-order catalog,

listen for passing cars. All-day we watch

for the mail, some news from a distant place.

Elegy - I think by now the river must be thick

For my father

I think by now the river must be thick

with salmon. Late August, I imagine it

as it was that morning: drizzle needling

the surface, mist at the banks like a net

settling around us — everything damp

and shining. That morning, awkward

and heavy in our hip waders, we stalked

into the current and found our places —

you upstream a few yards and out

far deeper. You must remember how

the river seeped in over your boots

and you grew heavier with that defeat.

All day I kept turning to watch you, how

first you mimed our guide's casting

then cast your invisible line, slicing the sky

between us; and later, rod in hand, how

you tried — again and again — to find

that perfect arc, flight of an insect

skimming the river's surface. Perhaps

you recall I cast my line and reeled in

two small trout we could not keep.

Because I had to release them, I confess,

I thought about the past — working

the hooks loose, the fish writhing

in my hands, each one slipping away

before I could let go. I can tell you now

that I tried to take it all in, record it

for an elegy I'd write — one day —

when the time came. Your daughter,

I was that ruthless. What does it matter

if I tell you I learned to be? You kept casting

your line, and when it did not come back

empty, it was tangled with mine. Some nights,

dreaming, I step again into the small boat

that carried us out and watch the bank receding —

my back to where I know we are headed.

Domestic Work

All week she's cleaned

someone else's house,

stared down her own face

in the shine of copper--

bottomed pots, polished

wood, toilets she'd pull

the lid to--that look saying

Let's make a change, girl.

But Sunday mornings are hers--

church clothes starched

and hanging, a record spinning

on the console, the whole house

dancing. She raises the shades,

washes the rooms in light,

buckets of water, Octagon soap.

Cleanliness is next to godliness ...

Windows and doors flung wide,

curtains two-stepping

forward and back, neck bones

bumping in the pot, a choir

of clothes clapping on the line.

Nearer my God to Thee ...

She beats time on the rugs,

blows dust from the broom

like dandelion spores, each one

a wish for something better.


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.