Natasha Trethewey’s “South”

Homo sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile. – E. O. Wilson


I returned to a stand of pines,
          bone-thin phalanx
flanking the roadside, tangle
          of understory – a dialectic of dark
and light – and magnolias blossoming
          like afterthought: each flower
a surrender, white flags draped
          among the branches.  I returned
to land’s end, the swath of coast
          clear cut and buried in sand –
mangrove, live oak, gulfweed
          razed and replaced by thin palms –
palmettos –  symbol of victory
          or defiance, over and over,
making this vanquished land.  I returned
          to a field of cotton, hallowed ground –
as slave legend goes –  each boll holding
          the ghosts of generations:
those who measured their days
          by the heft of sacks and lengths of rows,
whose sweat flecked the cotton plants
          still sewn into our clothes.
I returned to a country battlefield
          where colored troops fought and died –
Port Hudson where their bodies swelled
          and blackened beneath the sun, unburied
until earth’s green sheet pulled over them,
          unmarked by any headstone.
Where the roads, buildings and monuments
          are named to honor the Confederacy,
where the old flag still hangs, I return
          to Mississippi, state that made a crime
of me –  mulatto, half breed – native
          in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.


Born in Mississippi to a Canadian father and African American mother, Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey holds the Phyllis Wheatly Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University. Trethewey generally derives inspiration from her experiences as a mixed race child raised in the South, as well as the historical conditions of her ancestors, both involving the struggle to ground oneself to a lush and vibrant “home” that is so blatantly exclusive. The vivid imagery present in “South” attests to the resonant and sincere quality her voice holds in describing such subjects, as she uses the natural world to further weave her writings with the past. This poem appeared in Shenandoah, Vol. 51, No. 1 and in Native Guard (Houghton-Mifflin, 2006).



Trethewey will be giving a reading here at Washington and Lee on Thursday, February 2nd, at 4:30 p.m. in the Northen Auditorium of Leyburn Library.

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.