Elegy Written in a Natchez Country Churchyard


—for Robert Hayden



Old cemeteries where the headstones
always face the church and the edifice
itself resolutely draws its axis

east: at solstice sunlight enters westward
windows to grace the altar and shadow
forth a judgment and the end of time.

Recent churches often face the road
instead, like the headstones that surround them.
This shift means something else has shifted too

though what we don’t know and it seems so normal
no one notices. Along the Natchez
Trace one road erases all but traces

of another. There’s also a turnoff
for a burial mound. It faces west
and rises to a sunset overlook.

No telling how the bodies inside were
placed. The park plaques instead retell tales
of Indian atrocities—killing

family “retainers” (what a word) so
they were forced to serve in the next life. All
allegoric innuendo for why

they lost their right to live on Natchez land
while history makes them prehistorical
(or parenthetical). Was it a new

sun-god or a right of way that made them just
a line to be erased before rewriting?
(Yet those who follow are retraced themselves

to wait and watch the roadway as it goes.)

[Mississippi]


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