Guiding Us Home

From Washington, D.C., three poems honoring ancestry and excavating history.


South of the Capitol
to old Providence Hospital in SE,
my great, great grandmother, Mary,
carried her dying husband
from their home. 

It’s impossible to know
which thorn was sharpest:
the haunt of vows uttered
39 years before—’til death do us part,
the June sun pressing down
wet & inexorable as the pressure
on her husband’s brain—or
her lonely walk home. 

Over the years, my elders described
my great, great grandmother
as a large, strong, capable mother
of 13, a devoted wife. Yet,
it is her deed on my great,
great grandfather’s last day
that pauses me. 

Great, great grandmother,
Gof whom there is no image
Gbut those of your descendants,
GWho was your witness?
GWho wrote of you? 

100 years later,
I, descendant of those who
crafted this diamond city
from muddy water, descendant
of the generation of alley dwellers,
I carry love like Mary,
GSometimes like joy
Gor trouble,
Gor dead weight. 

My aunt told me, When you pray,
pray to the Mother Mary.
Sound advice, whether for the present
or for other centuries.
I know she referred to the Madonna,
dark hair wrapped in white,
Body wrapped in sky blue,
Virgin Mother of Jesus.

I know this clearly
and do pray to the Madonna
when the house is dark
and my kids are asleep.
Yet my sorrow reaches for Mary,
born enslaved in Westmoreland County, VA,
who walked here to DC,
first of the freed,

Mary, mother of my mothers,
Mary, wife of Thomas,
Mary, who made clear
in the text of an obituary
that her beloved died
in full triumph of faith. 

Mary, pray for us sinners
now and at the hour
of our death, Amen.


We heard strong storms forecasted,
the meteorologist on the car radio
advised the District of Columbia, and
several neighboring counties, to take shelter by 4 pm.
We, under a clear sky on the Beltway, 3:30 pm
on a Saturday, sip multi-flavored Slurpees,
cola, cherry, blue raspberry, and the limited edition
grapefruit, all smiles, sipping too fast,
inducing brain freeze. 

We ignore the rumors of rain and high winds,
change the station, sing out loud in chorus
to our favorite song, testing vocal ranges
far from our comfort, ride the road.
Home is close now, the sudden clouds over
M Street grumble, deep, gray, baritone.
The other side of South Capitol is a screen
of wetness. We, spared even a mist, keep singing,
safe ranges now, a silvery halo
over the Capitol guides us home.


(after the discovery of old African burial sites in Georgetown, D.C., September 2012)

Bobcat, crash into my skull,
crack open earth and eat
out the crime, dig in with fat
metal teeth, scoop out land

dismemberment, history
covered over with gardens,
new bricks, sky blue paint,
black about the pains, 

call the police, the examiner,
confirm no foul play, archaeologists,
dig me out bone by bone,
mandible, some ribs, joints. 

Hurry them here, there is work
to be done, the construction team
is here with hands on their hips,
strong hats about their heads. 

Hurry, hurry, remove the skeletons,
the boom crack of ghosts,
rive open the dirt and our bones,
take what you will.

Author Profile

Melanie Henderson, poet, editor, photographer, and publisher, was born, raised and lives in Washington, D.C. Her debut collection of poems, Elegies for New York Avenue, won the 2011 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. 

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