“Field Work”

FIELDWORK, a poem by Brenda Marie Osbey
Commissioned by the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University for the 2014 dedication and commemoration of the African American Cemetery at the University of Virginia.

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

men women 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.

©2014 by Brenda Marie Osbey

Brenda Marie Osbey at Brown University

Brenda Marie Osbey website