Fieldwork

From Virginia Suite

by Brenda Marie Osbey

In Commemoration of the Discovery of the Remains of 67 African Americans, Interred beyond the Walls of the University Cemetery at the University of Virginia

“that excluding students … enslaved African Americans were the largest pre-Civil War population residing at the Academical Village.”

remove topsoil
cater close to the principle 
of uncovering both common and uncommon past
monitor closely ensuing slow dig and soft-brushed stroke –
now inherent tools of this body of knowledge intending to reveal
whatever of human society remains
to be revealed
beneath
below
tin wood and brick
ceramicware
long anonymous cloth and bits of iron, nail
spindle and spoon
tooth
quarry stone
bone and shard
women men children
useful things
of everyday life
beneath
beyond.

cemetery no doubt in other languages also
is a graceful word
death we know
and sometimes causes, multiple causes of said deaths;
burial, means or styles of conveyance to places of burial of those dead.
measuring proximity of bodies singly and adjacent or cutting one upon another
tells something of various indicators of longtime burial practice in
specific or approximate or conjectured place.
cumulative patterns of expression and material culture of souls, however,
is an area with which neither this present and ongoing study 
nor any science we yet know of
claims so far to be equipped to deal.
interviews with known or presumed descendants can perhaps expose
basic knowledge of belief, practice
concepts of death
desire 
afterlife
beyond.

slaves here are called servants
many who write and talk such things do
say that mr jefferson himself did call it so
it does not change the conditions under which we labor
within these bounds
the uses we are put to
the ways we die
for keep of these grounds

did call himself father to all this we build and tend
did look on slavery – they like to tell –
as but one necessary evil.
did not say the others –
war mayhap

in our way it is as children gone with tetanus and pneumonia
women gone birthing
strapping men felled down in typhoid or the consumption:
violet, william and boy-bacchus
tessa’s hannah
vanalie smothered, sleeping – we all did hope –
strong mike and billy
tom young and handsome then bloated over with the filthy bile
limas old but also here with us and not alone
eliza and baby eliza almost together
woman over broadus’ place
some over maupin and perrow way. 

unknown they write and put away in ledger and book
unknown
but not to those who love and tend them in the end
not by us
not by rust-red earth
soft-brushed by hands that carry and tend
and sometimes pray
sometimes not.                                  

as much science as we now possess
it is yet difficult to advise beyond further study,
determination for remains other than ancient bearing far more upon the living
than we are at present
prepared to suppose.

sixty-seven is no small number.
nor is the body neither less nor more than the soul’s own passage.
for here some have the one-soul and others the many
some return straightaway to ancestors
while others live on even as the body itself gives way
such knowledge comes in those earliest nights
when living and dead go to meet one another
go out of an evening
to sit and talk good talk.
these things are sacred.
and it is worse than wicked to disturb those going to talk well with their own.
grave evil to prevent them from keeping
good company with their own dead.

in this place here is wickedness unimagined
except to those
who have no soul
no dead to call home
no ancestor to guide and receive them

sixty-seven is no small number
and no one of us can make a home
where ancestors do not also live.

it is well to consider
that research design is one language,
reverence another

it is well to consider
how further study in concert with broader nearer communities
than these esteemed colleagues
may impinge upon the potential weight of disinterment
of removing for analysis at this time
remains largely anonymous
yet long consigned

time to come
drums yet may beat soft and low:
tessa’s hannah
billy, strong mike
beat soft beat low
william
tom, young and handsome still
bacchus, violet
beat soft beat low
liza and baby liza
old limas rooted deep as cypress close by
surveying
beyond what-all remains of this green
embowered wood
sweet-sleeping vanalie waking only to dream again
feast-days to come
beat soft beat low
the evils of this place hardly more than memory trailing
and neither slave nor servant then
but as we are
in these our truest skins
together
soft now and low
inside this silty red
and clayey soil.

Poem copyright 2020 by Brenda Marie Osbey. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from Brenda Marie Osbey debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: City of Palms and Funky Dives” and “In Memory of Katherine Foster, Free Negress, Late, of These Parts.”


Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

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