…the ghost of history lies down beside me, rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm. —Natasha Trethewey
My husband’s mother wanted to take the family portrait
at Carnton Plantation. I was the only person she called to askif 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 wejust 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 saidIt’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 chairstipping 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 laughedand 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 itback, pay it off, we’ll redeem it, she said again. 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 darkand 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 redlight, 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 farmsteadto 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 mintjuleps 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,
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 downto the bright green topsoil, fertile with the past: organic and holy, wet as Dixie
myth—mixing with iron, clay, aluminum, and revision—romancing the dirtand undead, churning the silt in the subsoil, steeping farther down—deep, deep
into 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.
Copyright © 2019 by Tiana Clark.
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.
Tiana Clark is the author of Equilibrium, selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. She is the winner of the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize, 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize, and winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize. Clark was the recipient of the 2017-2018 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Best New Poets 2015, BOAAT, Crab Orchard Review, Thrush, The Journal, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
Winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize
“Critiquing the commodification of black pain while also acknowledging and revealing your hurt as a black person is tricky as hell. It is dangerous. And that is precisely what Tiana Clark does in these beautiful, vulnerable, honest poems.”
“If Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood were a blank book bearing that title alone, I would still feel like I was in the presence of a profound lyric gift. It’s astonishing, the heft of that declaration, and the way these poems rise up to meet its rigor and clarity. Toni Morrison commanded writers to ‘make it political as hell, and make it irrevocably beautiful.’ Clark, as if in response, writes, ‘Let us marvel at the Love and Grace that bought / and brought us here.’ The formal dexterity of these poems, the vision that takes us from Daphne to Lorca to Phillis Wheatley to Balanchine to Rihanna to Rukeyser, announces a significant and comprehensive new poetic talent. This beauty is irrevocable.”
“Superlatives for new poets are distressingly common these days, so a reader may not believe me when I say this debut collection is a book that I have waited for all my life. It is a book of relentless beauty about all the territory African Americans hold close under whispered breaths, an accumulation of history and beauty that I find heartbreaking and breathtaking. More than necessary reading: it’s soul-saving.”