Natasha Trethewey

Meditation at Decatur Square


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, inscribing
                          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 spurious, corrupt, or doubtful;
                                             at its base, forged
                          in concrete, a narrative
               of valor, virtue, states' rights. 

Here, it is only the history of a word,
               that points us toward
                          what's not there; all of it
palimpsest, each mute object 
               repeating a single refrain: 

               Remember this.


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,

the new courthouse enshrining
            the story of my mother’s death—

her autopsy, the police report, 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.

Once, a poet wrote: Books live in the mind
like honey inside a beehive. 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 he wrote
for inmates who could not write, who waited
each day for an answer to arrive; the library
with too few books, the last pages ripped out
so someone could roll a cigarette. To get by,
he read those books, conjuring 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.
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