Vanderbilt University Poetry Prize, 2016
by Tiana Clark
…the ghost of history lies down beside me,
rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.
My husband’s mother wanted to take the family portrait
at Carnton Plantation. I was the only person she called to ask
if it was okay. She said we could redeem the land with our picture—
my brown skin acrostic to the row of their white. She said can’t we
just let the past be the past. I was silent, my cell phone glowing
warm against my cheek. I was driving, red light—then go. She said
it’s practically in my backyard and that her boys played on buckled
fields of green graves growing up—there are so many fun places to shoot!
Oh and that big magnolia is in bloom—fragrant milky petals and waxy
greens by the red brick house, and the large front porch with rocking chairs
tipping back and forth above the purpled stains of Confederate blood. I
said it was fine as long as we weren’t by the slave cabins, and she laughed
and I laughed, which is to say—I wasn’t joking at all. She kept saying:
redeem, as if to say, we’ll make it acceptable: restore and atone, buy it
back, pay it off, we’ll redeem it, she said again. Emancipate. Liberate.
Her voice swelling, like she was singing, and as if we really could.
How do we stand on the dead and smile? I carry so many black souls
in my skin, sometimes I swear it vibrates, like a tuning fork when struck.
A staff officer wrote, "the wounded, in hundreds, were brought to [the house]
during the battle, and all the night after. And when the noble old house could
hold no more, the yard was appropriated until the wounded and dead filled that...."
The plantation was named after cairns, prophetic stones marking a mass
grave still speaking. How the body leaves its mark on wood—plum dark
and greasy from the shot stippled and amputated. My tongue was cut off
when she asked me again, are you sure it’s okay? I was waiting at the red
light, my cell phone burned from the hot battery in my hand. Even the dark
layers of dirt must testify—how the Battle of Franklin turned the farmstead
to a field hospital, thousands of casualties during the war for states rights
the brochure said, and now it’s sold out for summer weddings with mint
juleps in sweating silver cups, cannon bursts from weekend reenactments,
and photo shoots for graduation, pregnant couples, and my new family.
It’s raining, the photographer is snapping and directing us toward the daffodils
in the garden, the shutter opening and closing like a tiny guillotine—clicking.
I’m staring at the black eye clutching my smile. Light drizzle turning my pressed
hair slowly back to curls, the water percolating—weathering its way down
to the bright green topsoil, fertile with the past: organic and holy wet as Dixie
myth—mixing with iron, clay, aluminum, and revision—romancing the dirt
and undead, churning the silt in the subsoil, steeping further down—deep, deep
in the dark pocket of earth, to the parent material, layers of large unbroken rocks,
down to the antebellum base, the bedrock of Southern amnesia. Can’t we just let
the past be the past, she said. Her voice swelling, like she was singing,
and as if we really could.
In the portrait, my husband is holding my hand, his hand that dug for bullets as a boy.