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At the Cemetery, Walnut Grove Plantation

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The poem at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989 by Lucille Clifton is a six stanza poem with many repetitions throughout the poem conveying the idea of how the slaves that worked in the walnut plantation were forgotten and not honored. The speaker of the poem, who is taking a tour around the plantation and cemetery, expressed anger throughout the poem as the tension slowly escalates ending with repetitions of “here lies”. Putting all the elements of the poem together, paradox and repetition, it perfectly articulates the underlying meaning of the poem, which is to remember and honor the dead slaves, men and women, whom worked in the plantation and treat them more humanely.

Reading through the poem, it can be noticed that there is not one uppercase letter and even the word “i” in line 16, “and i will testify”, is written in lowercase. The title also does not have any uppercase letters even though “south carolina,” a proper noun, is being used. Since the main idea of the poem is to honor the dead slaves, the lack of uppercase letters can be interpreted as the speaker trying to diminish and make everything be on the same level. Through the repetitions, the tension slowly escalates. The first repetition is: “tell me your names.” It can be inferred that the speaker is trying to give the slaves humanity by giving them names instead of calling them inventory. The way the speaker is demanding for the names can also be understood that there were no proper grave stones for the dead slaves, which makes the speaker upset: nobody mentioned slaves

but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock. (10-14)
These slaves were evidently buried “under rock” where no one can know their identity, much less remember them. This is evidence that shows how dishonored the slaves were. Because of this stanza, we can understand the implications the speaker is making and what message the speaker is trying to send. The phrase “nobody mentioned slaves” was also repeated many times throughout the poem. One interpretation for this phrase is that people tend to enjoy only the finished product of the plantation but does not have any respect for the slaves that worked there. Another interpretation that can be inferred is that as the speaker gets shown around the plantation by a tour guide, the tour guide does not mention anything about the slaves that were buried there. Other evidence that supports the theme is line 17-18: “the inventory lists ten slaves/ but only men were recognized.”

Because these lines were italicized, it can be assume that the speaker is just reading a sign and is simply stating a historical fact. However, reading into the lines demonstrates how the slaves were dehumanized. The word “inventory,” which means complete list of items such as property or goods in stock, shows that slaves were only property to slave owners and does not have sort of human quality in them. Another deeper meaning that can be collected from “only men alone recognized” is the feeling that women slaves were even more mistreated and were not even recognized as an inventory, which can be inferred that women slaves were even lower than male slaves and were not recognized as an object or property. The denial of women slaves’ existence ties closely to lines 25-28: some of these slaves

were women
some of them did this
honored work.
Here, the speaker is telling the readers that not only men worked in this plantation but women as well. The phrase “honored work” is a paradox because according to the slave owners, the work that the slaves have to do is considered routine but it is what we remember most about these slaves.

The last four lines of the poem repeated the same phrase over and over again: “here lies” (32-35). At the funeral, the priest will generally start the ceremony by saying “here lies” and the name of the deceased. Since the slaves only got rocks, not gravestones, and their names were forgotten, the speaker is trying to give some dignity to the dead slaves. In the last line, however, the speaker ended with the word “hear”, which means to listen. Therefore if can be inferred that another meaning to this phrase is to hear the lies, which is nobody mentioned slaves. Another meaning to “hear” is the speaker asking the reader to listen to these unheard slaves and to honor them for the work that they have done, which is the main theme of the poem.

The poem, however, is not resolved. This is because the speaker was unable to fill in the names of the dead slaves that were buried under the rocks. All the speaker can do is talk to the dead and ask them for their names. The speaker is asking the reader to remember these forgotten slaves and dare the readers to recognize the unremembered one.

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