09 March 2009

Shelby Stephenson

[from Shelby Stephenson's Family Matters: Homage to July, The Slave Girl, Bellday, 2008]

Your Name Is July


Your name is July —
there is no record I know about
beyond the account of your sale.

Did you know your place
and my greatgreatgranddad’s too?

Rummaging around the homeplace,
pronouncing your name Ju-ly,
I hear my father — This land will be yours someday

what graveyard of bones —
mounds and stones,
the “I owned” —
you there, Jart, Venus, Silvy, Clay.
April’s wildflowers run at your feet.
Did winters fill your shoes with snow?

Pap George did live here.
The old washhouse still stands.

I kick the dust out of these fields.


Greatgreatgrandpap George’s anvil
fits right between your shoulderblades.
The money used to buy and sell you
presses into my heart —

I remember —
never eating with “them.”

“They” lived on “our place,”
my father’s boyhood home,
         his father’s homeplace;
                         they slept in the same rooms he grew up in.
                 So when they came to our shanty
my mother would fix
some plates to take to the porch;
we would talk through the screen;
they would eat their peas and fatback
         and my mother took pride in
                 knowing they liked her food.


Chattelrattle downchute to market,
         limbs swinging, nostrils flaring blood.
May streams and woods your vestments be,
your creeks fill with fish —
fields score with mercy.

Tenant shanties wear the landscape.
The graveyard moves the rip of the whip.

Monuments — unheard, still.
Fieldrocks grow moss and grieving.
Memory comes closer to mercy, uncompromising,
         like medicine we take, wait.
Your warm color line never dies.
Fingers wave from galleys,
ships pushing through hell to bring us here.

Family Matters: Homage to July, The Sl Girl

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