Native Guard Poem Text

Native Guard Poem Text

November 1862

Truth be told, I do not want to forget

anything of my former life: the landscape's

song of bondage—dirge in the river's throat

where it churns into the Gulf, wind in trees

choked with vines. I thought to carry with me

want of freedom though I had been freed,

remembrance not constant recollection.

Yes: I was born a slave, at harvest time,

in the Parish of Ascension; I've reached

thirty-three with history of one younger

inscribed upon my back. I now use ink

to keep record, a closed book, not the lure

of memory—flawed, changeful—that dulls the lash

for the master, sharpens it for the slave.

December 1862

For the slave, having a master sharpens

the bend into work, the way the sergeant

moves us now to perfect battalion drill,

dress parade. Still, we're called supply units

not infantry—and so we dig trenches,

haul burdens for the army no less heavy

than before. I heard the colonel call it

nigger work. Half rations make our work

familiar still. We take those things we need

from the Confederates' abandoned homes:

salt, sugar, even this journal, near full

with someone else's words, overlapped now,

crosshatched beneath mine. On every page,

his story intersecting with my own.

January 1863

O how history intersects—my own

berth upon a ship called the Northern Star

and I'm delivered into a new life,

Fort Massachusetts: a great irony—

both path and destination of freedom

I'd not dared to travel. Here, now,

I walk ankle-deep in sand, fly-bitten, nearly

smothered by heat, and yet I can look out

upon the Gulf and see the surf breaking,

tossing the ships, the great gunboats bobbing

on the water. And are we not the same,

slaves in the hands of the master, destiny?

—night sky red with the promise of fortune,

dawn pink as new flesh: healing, unfettered.

January 1863

Today, dawn red as warning. Unfettered

supplies, stacked on the beach at our landing,

washed away in the storm that rose too fast,

caught us unprepared. Later, as we worked,

I joined in the low singing someone raised

to pace us, and felt a bond in labor

I had not known. It was then a dark man

removed his shirt, revealed the scars, crosshatched

like the lines in this journal, on his back.

It was he who remarked at how the ropes

cracked like whips on the sand, made us take note

of the wild dance of a tent loosed by wind.

We watched and learned. Like any shrewd master,

we know now to tie down what we will keep.

February 1863

We know it is our duty now to keep

white men as prisoners—rebel soldiers,

would-be masters. We're all bondsmen here, each

to the other. Freedom has gotten them

captivity. For us, a conscription

we have chosen—jailors to those who still

would have us slaves. They are cautious, dreading

the sight of us. Some neither read nor write,

are laid too low and have few words to send

but those I give them. Still, they are wary

of a negro writing, taking down letters.

X binds them to the page—a mute symbol

like the cross on a grave. I suspect they fear

I'll listen, put something else down in ink.

March 1863

I listen, put down in ink what I know

they labor to say between silences

too big for words: worry for beloveds—

My Dearest, how are you getting along—

what has become of their small plots of land—

did you harvest enough food to put by?

They long for the comfort of former lives—

I see you as you were, waving goodbye.

Some send photographs—a likeness in case

the body can't return. Others dictate

harsh facts of this war: The hot air carries

the stench of limbs, rotten in the bone pit.

Flies swarm—a black cloud. We hunger, grow weak.

When men die, we eat their share of hardtack.

April 1863

When men die, we eat their share of hardtack

trying not to recall their hollow sockets,

the worm-stitch of their cheeks. Today we buried

the last of our dead from Pascagoula,

and those who died retreating to our ship—

white sailors in blue firing upon us

as if we were the enemy. I'd thought

the fighting over, then watched a man fall

beside me, knees-first as in prayer, then

another, his arms outstretched as if borne

upon the cross. Smoke that rose from each gun

seemed a soul departing. The Colonel said:

an unfortunate incident; said:

their names shall deck the page of history.

June 1863

Some names shall deck the page of history

as it is written on stone. Some will not.

Yesterday, word came of colored troops, dead

on the battlefield at Port Hudson; how

General Banks was heard to say I have

no dead there, and left them, unclaimed. Last night,

I dreamt their eyes still open—dim, clouded

as the eyes of fish washed ashore, yet fixed—

staring back at me. Still, more come today

eager to enlist. Their bodies—haggard

faces, gaunt limbs—bring news of the mainland.

Starved, they suffer like our prisoners. Dying,

they plead for what we do not have to give.

Death makes equals of us all: a fair master.

August 1864

Dumas was a fair master to us all.

He taught me to read and write: I was a man-

servant, if not a man. At my work,

I studied natural things—all manner

of plants, birds I draw now in my book: wren,

willet, egret, loon. Tending the gardens,

I thought only to study live things, thought

never to know so much about the dead.

Now I tend Ship Island graves, mounds like dunes

that shift and disappear. I record names,

send home simple notes, not much more than

how and when—an official duty. I'm told

it's best to spare most detail, but I know

there are things which must be accounted for.


These are things which must be accounted for:

slaughter under the white flag of surrender—

black massacre at Fort Pillow; our new name,

the Corps d'Afrique—words that take the native

from our claim; mossbacks and freedmen—exiles

in their own homeland; the diseased, the maimed,

every lost limb, and what remains: phantom

ache, memory haunting an empty sleeve;

the hog-eaten at Gettysburg, unmarked

in their graves; all the dead letters, unanswered;

untold stories of those that time will render

mute. Beneath battlefields, green again,

the dead molder—a scaffolding of bone

we tread upon, forgetting. Truth be told.

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