Monday, July 16, 2007

An invitation to discover Natasha Trethewey

The 2007 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry is Natasha Trethewey, who holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University. Her previous work includes two poetry collections, Domestic Work (Graywolf 1999) and Bellocq's Ophelia (Graywolf 2002), as well as appearances in numerous journals, collections, and reviews.

Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin 2006) is her winning collection of poetry, named for a series of poems about two units of black Union soldiers who guarded Confederate prisoners off the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. Trethewey also draws on the life of her murdered mother and the history of Mississippi, where she grew up as the daughter of a black woman and white man (an experience punctuated by the night her family discovered a burning cross on their lawn). The concluding poem condenses her mixed feelings about her heritage:

Mississippi, state that made a crime
of me—mulatto, half-breed, native—
in my native land, this place they'll bury me.

This morning, I listened to Trethewey read several of her poems on the NPR program, Fresh Air. I was riveted by her story and her words. I would encourage you to sample some of Trethewey's poetry and enjoy a superlative example of what is an increasingly marginalized art form in American culture.

Here are two of my favorite poems so far, the first from her first collection Domestic Work and the second from the latest, Native Guard:

Domestic Work, 1937

All week she's cleaned
someone else's house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper--
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she'd pull
the lid to--that look saying

Let's make a change, girl.

But Sunday mornings are hers--
church clothes starched
and hanging, a record spinning
on the console, the whole house
dancing. She raises the shades,
washes the rooms in light,
buckets of water, Octagon soap.

Cleanliness is next to godliness ...

Windows and doors flung wide,
curtains two-stepping
forward and back, neck bones
bumping in the pot, a choir
of clothes clapping on the line.

Nearer my God to Thee ...

She beats time on the rugs,
blows dust from the broom
like dandelion spores, each one
a wish for something better.

(Vicksburg, Mississippi)

Here, the Mississippi carved
its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city
as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up
above the river's bend—where now

the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed.
Here, the dead stand up in stone, white

marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand
on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;

they must have seemed like catacombs,
in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,

candlelit, underground. I can see her
listening to shells explode, writing herself

into history, asking what is to become
of all the living things in this place?

This whole city is a grave. Every spring—
Pilgrimage—the living come to mingle

with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders
in the long hallways, listen all night

to their silence and indifference, relive
their dying on the green battlefield.

At the museum, we marvel at their clothes—
preserved under glass—so much smaller

than our own, as if those who wore them
were only children. We sleep in their beds,

the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped
in flowers—funereal—a blur

of petals against the river's gray.
The brochure in my room calls this

living history. The brass plate on the door reads
Prissy's Room. A window frames

the river's crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream,
the ghost of history lies down beside me,

rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.


Jason Epps -- Salt Lake City, Utah, USA said...


Glad to see I'm not the only Christian who listens to NPR! I wonder if you get as much flack as I do!

I went to school at Emory, so I was interested to hear of one of its professors getting the PP in poetry. Thanks for the scoop.


Boyd Luter said...


Wow! Having spent almost 20 of my first 23 years in Mississippi (and less than 30 miles from Vicksburg), I assure you that Natasha's perspective on that world is on target, eerily so.

Love to Ronnie and you,