My Father as Cartographer

Natasha Trethewey - 1966-
In dim light now, his eyes
     straining to survey
the territory: here is the country
     of Loss, its colony Grief;
the great continent Desire
     and its borderland Regret;

vast, unfathomable water,
    an archipelago—the tiny islands
of Joy, untethered, set adrift.
    At the bottom of the map
his legend and cartouche,
    the measures of distance, key

to the symbols marking each
    known land. What’s missing
is the traveler’s warning
    at the margins: a dragon—
its serpentine signature—monstrous
    as a two-faced daughter.

More by Natasha Trethewey

Letter Home

--New Orleans, November 1910

Four weeks have passed since I left, and still 
I must write to you of no work. I've worn down 
the soles and walked through the tightness 
of my new shoes calling upon the merchants, 
their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking 
my plain English and good writing would secure 
for me some modest position Though I dress each day 
in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves 
you crocheted--no one needs a girl. How flat 
the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins. 
I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet 
industry, to mask the desperation that tightens 
my throat. I sit watching-- 

though I pretend not to notice--the dark maids
ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive 
anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown 
as your dear face, they'd know I'm not quite 
what I pretend to be. I walk these streets 
a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes 
of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine, 
a negress again. There are enough things here 
to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through 
the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall 
the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard 
at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking 
their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads 
on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots 
and irons of the laundresses call to me.

I thought not to do the work I once did, back bending 
and domestic; my schooling a gift--even those half days
at picking time, listening to Miss J--. How 
I'd come to know words, the recitations I practiced 
to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up
or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until
I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,
I repeated whole sections I'd learned by heart,
spelling each word in my head to make a picture
I could see, as well as a weight I could feel
in my mouth. So now, even as I write this
and think of you at home, Goodbye

is the waving map of your palm, is 
a stone on my tongue.

Pilgrimage

Vicksburg, Mississippi


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.