Meditation at Decatur Square

by Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey


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 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 once,
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 counter 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

Monument: Poems New and Selected

Last updated May 12, 2023