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Lucille Clifton's "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Lucille Clifton

Introduction and Text of "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989"

The 21st century has become littered with a movement to abolish history by tearing down statues, changing names of public buildings, colleges, and streets. Lucille Clifton encountered a situation that had attempted to abolish history, and she was greatly offended by that attempt—so offended that she wrote this poem about this issue!

Clifton has remarked, "You see, we cannot ignore history. History doesn't go away. The past isn't back there, the past is here too." After being asked, "Is it part of poetry's job to recover history, to proclaim it, and to correct it when necessary?," she responded, "Yes. All that may be needed is that the injustice in the world be mentioned so that nobody can ever say, 'Nobody told me'."

W. H. Auden once quipped in his tribute poem, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," "Poetry makes nothing happen," but sometimes in little ways that may snowball into movements, poetry can start the ball rolling, and one might hope Clifton's little verse may serve to save our history lessons from disappearance.

at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.

tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and I will testify.

the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were recognized
.

among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark
some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names.

here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies
hear

Reading of Clifton's poem

Commentary

This poem voices its dramatic lament at the omission of the mention of slavery during a tour the poet took of Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina in 1989.

First Stanza: Addressing a Ghost-Like Presence

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.

In "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989," the speaker addresses the ghost-like presences of the imagined slaves about which she knows nothing. She is convinced that there had to be slaves on this large plantation that was thriving in the early nineteenth century. She dramatically claims that the silence of the slaves was "drumming / in [her] bones." And she asks them to "tell [her] [their] names."

Second Stanza: Intuiting a Presence

nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.

The speaker, who has come to take the plantation tour looking to get a sense of the slaves that she believed worked there, fancies that even though the tour guide has never mentioned slaves, she thinks that she is intuiting their presence: "nobody mentioned slaves / and yet the curious tools / shine with your fingerprints." She rationalizes, "somebody did this work."

The owners of the plantation, Charles and Mary Moore, had ten children; those "fingerprints" may also be from those children who likely also worked on the plantation.

Still, the speaker's intuition allows her to create her speculative drama as she assumes that those slaves now "moulder[ ] under rock."

Third Stanza: Who Are You?

tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and I will testify.

The speaker then begs the ghosts to tell her their names, and she "will testify." Her testimony may not be thorough, but as least it is more than the nothing at all she is receiving from this historically filtered tour.

If the slaves existed, they lived and worked as such. Perhaps, she wishes simply to cite their names, which is an admirable thought, despite the impossibility of ever knowing those names.

Fourth Stanza: Proof of Their Existence

the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were recognized
.

The speaker then claims that the "inventory lists ten slaves / but only men were recognized." This possible factoid affords the female speaker another issue over which to express indignation: that the women slaves are not even listed as inventoried property.

Fifth Stanza: Slaves in the Cemetery

among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark
some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names.

The speaker then muses that in the cemetery some of those buried must be slaves, and, of course, some of those slaves were women. They all did "honored work." Again, the speaker demands of the imagined ghostly presences that they reveal their names.

They were "foremothers, brothers," and she wants to know their "dishonored names." They are "dishonored" because the speaker does not know their names and has no hope of finding out exactly who they were. While revision of historical facts remains an abomination, total erasure from the historical record is even worse.

Sixth Stanza Who Lies Buried Here?

here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies
hear

The final five lines of the poem repeat the line "here lies" four times and ends with "hear." She would like to add a name to each line, but since she is unable to do so, she offers one last command: she wants them to "hear" that she would honor them if she could.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes