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, inventing 

                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, 


a vault of memory, the new courthouse enshrining 

                the story of my mother’s death—


her autopsy, the police reports, 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 bee hive. 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.

It was a small library, he told me: several bibles,

a few dictionaries, lots of dime-store fiction, 

some good novels, too. He’ d spend hours reading 

until he could read no more. What he wished for, 

he said, was to get through an entire book, 

but each one ended before the story did—

the last pages ripped out so someone could roll 

a cigarette. At first he hated missing the endings,

the not knowing, but then he began to write, 

in his head, a book of the lost stories—each ending 

another possible outcome. He wrote all year 

until the day he walked out of the prison 

into a story he could write from beginning.




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


Natasha Trethewey served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States (2012–2014). She is the author of four collections of poetry: Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), Native Guard (2006)—for which she was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize—Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), and Domestic Work (2000). Her book of nonfiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, appeared in 2010 from the University of Georgia Press. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Beinecke Library at Yale, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Trethewey is Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.