2022 Poetry Contest First Place Winner

They Buried Him In The Sand

            For John Henry the man and all the unnamed men buried

at the Great Bend Tunnel, Talcott, West Virginia


Ghosts graze

the land,

and the grass—

it tumbles off the lip

into that old

roadside tangle

barbed wire


caution tape

soft sinkhole muck


What the ground 

holds where

the ground collapses—


Sun lifts up

bright, bright


Down the road

a flat

space of gravel

stones raked

stones ordered


An amphitheater


in its maintenance


And a whole army

of little signs


Sudden signage


I hope you enjoyed the doves


What the ground holds

crawls all over

my skin

in the sunlight


Does my breath catch

from the knowing

of the body

or the already-knowing

of the story


they buried him


but it is after I know it

that I see it—this

hole in the ground

with its slump

of old concrete

is a gravesite


The sun lifts

the spirit—

sun-summoned spirits

rising out of

the blanch-white

of gravel dust

            (but there’s no sand here,

                                                            no sand)


Past the gravesite

the world gets groomed


and then by the tracks

his statue



of a Black man



to death


John Henry died from a race


song says

he hammered his fool self to death

sign says

hero of the working class

song says

I’d die with a hammer in my hand

sign says

the real truth is of a man who stood up for his convictions against technological advancements

sign says


John Henry died from a race


sign says

I hope you enjoyed the doves


sun bright

on the quiet ground

says nothing




                                                            the man

they buried him in the sand


                                                            the myth

stood up for his convictions against technological advancement


                                                            the legend

this statue was erected in 1972, by a group of people with the same determination as the one it honors







and the signs

take pains

to make clear

that even

if he isn’t 

buried here


Quite a few of the workers had an abject fear of working where someone had just died. It was in the contractor’s best interest to downplay these deaths and accidents as much as possible. Rumor has it that mass graves are located on each end of the tunnel and at the fill before the old trestle where it crosses Hungards Creek “where they buried men and mules.”




His statue

looks over these 


with their

pointed stakes


the railbed

the picnic tables

chalky chain link

dull beneath the sun

groomed gravel

the amphitheater

back towards the fill

back towards the creek

back towards the buried

who were driven

by a confederate

who would

work men to death

but on his honor

refused bankruptcy

as ill suited to a 




His statue

looks back


the gravesite


Maybe his own and




It is irrelevant if the story of John Henry is true or a legend


His statue

holds a hole 


someone shot

a bullet

right through 

his chest








On my walk out

I am still a while

in the thick part

of the trees


far from the sun

cold here,

cold     green      low to the ground


still til

nothing sees me

that isn’t

being still with me


I can hear the man

in the yard just

over the hill


I can see the backside

of the welcome sign

where a woman 

just pulled up 

and grabbed 

a carefully hidden

plastic bag


I can hear

next door


Someone keeps hollering


One minute he’s singing


and the next minute

he’s right back to


his shot



Ella Latham is a writer from South Carolina. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in SoFloPoJo, miniskirt magazine, and the Peauxdunque Review, where it was selected as the creative nonfiction category winner in the 2021 Words and Music Writing Competition and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives and works in the North Carolina mountains.


Praise from Asiya Wadud for “They Buried Him In The Sand”:


The fan-folds of American history diminish the distance of the past and instead creates one, contiguous field between past, present, and foreseeable future. Seemingly ancient ghosts remain at the center of our imaginary, animating our mythology; haunting the landscapes; wending their way across the distance.


What astounds me in “They Buried Him In The Sand” is the proximity of the utterly quotidian and foreboding violence. This closeness belies the myth and formulation of a distant past and instead we are asked to contend with the ways that “ghosts graze/ the land”. These opening lines are instructions for how to enter this piece. As such, we enter with the knowledge that the ghosts have gone nowhere. Their sturdiness is uncontested. They float up, they graze and hover, but they don’t dissipate. 


Throughout the piece, “S’s” nimbly slide across the page, creating a reverberation and reverence all at once: “song says” is followed by “signs says” which is followed by “song says.” Elsewhere, we have “the sun lifts/ the spirit—/ sun-summoned spirit.” 


Against the backdrop of violence are moments of transportive clarity and radiance as well as reminders that “nothing sees me/ that isn’t/ being still with me.” The subterranean brutality abutting attempts at order, jostling for space and attention, though it is in the space of their prolonged tension that the poem exists. As the piece notes, “Past the gravesite/ the world gets groomed.” This poem instructs its readers to peel back, to look past the neat exterior to see what exists under the veneer of uncleaved space.