Theories of Time and Space

Natasha Trethewey - 1966-

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

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.

Related Poems

Letter Already Broadcast into Space

                        —To Sun Ra, from Earth

You are not here,

you are not here
in Birmingham,
        where they keep your name,

not in Elmwood's famous plots
                or the monuments
of bronze or steel or the strew

        of change in the fountain
where the firehoses sprayed.

                In the furnaces, in the interchange sprawl
        that covers Tuxedo Junction,

in the shopping malls, I think,
                they've forgotten you,

the broadcast towers, the barbecues,

        the statue of the Roman god,
spiculum blotting out
                part of the stars.

To get it dark enough,
        I have to fold back
into the hills, into the trees

                where my parents
planted me, where the TV
        barely reaches and I drift

with my hand on the dial
                of my father's radio,

spinning, too, the tall antenna
        he raised above the pines.

I have to stand at the base

                of the galvanized
pole I can use as an azimuth
        and plot you in.

The hunter's belt is slung again,
                and you are there

in the pulse, in the light of
        Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka,

all your different names,

                you are there
in all the rearrangements
        of the stars.

                        Come down now,
come down again,

                like the late fall light
into the mounds along the creek,

        light that soaks like a flood
to show the Cherokee sitting upright
                underground, light

like the fire they imply.

        Come down now
into the crease the freight train
                hits like a piano's hammer

and make the granite hum
        beneath.

                        Come down now

as my hand slips from the dial,
                tired again of looking
for the sound of another way

        to say everything.

Come down now with your diction
                and your dictionary.

Come down, Uncle, come down
        and help me rise.

I have forgot my wings.