It’s hard sometimes for writers living down South not to feel overlooked by the larger poetry community. All the editors and agents live up north, or out in California, don't they? And all the good poetry events seem to happen in New York or Chicago. (Well, as far as I’m concerned, even though I’m a Southerner who lives in the South, all good events of almost any kind happen in New York or Chicago --) So it was superb to wake up a few hours ago to a rare, cool Nashville morning in June, and be greeted by some good news not just for poetry, but for Southern Poetry.
The temperature (my god: 69 degrees at 6:15 am) made it possible to sit on the front porch (not sweating!) with coffee and the New York Times. It was thus situated that I read this: Natasha Trethewey, just down the road from us at Emory University in Atlanta, will succeed Philip Levine as U.S. Poet Laureate at the end of this summer. What an excellent choice…
So far, all the media reports seem to be emphasizing that Trethewey is the “first Southerner” named to the post since Robert Penn Warren. Let's not forget, however, that Warren -- although born in Kentucky and educated here in Nashville-- had been living the expatriate life in New England for decades by the time he was appointed. So let’s unpack that “first Southerner” sound bite a bit…
Before the Laureate program was established in 1986, a series of poets had served as Consultants in Poetry to the Library of Congress beginning in 1937. http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/poetslaureate/ Taking a look at the overall roster, only four Southerners in toto have served either as Consultant or Poet Laureate (Allen Tate, Warren, Randall Jarrell, James Dickey). Trethewey makes five. So not only is she the first Southerner to be appointed “since Warren,” she is also the very first Southern woman poet ever appointed. And this bears mention because one of the oddities of the extraordinary mid-20th century uber-production of Southern literature is that the poets were almost always men. The women (like Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Spencer, Eudora Welty) who were part of that flourishing tended to write fiction. Now, in 2012, we have a brand new Poet Laureate, born, reared, educated in the South, an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers http://thefsw.org/ and a chaired professor of POETRY at an eminent Southern university. How can we congratulate her enough?
I have loved Trethewey’s poetry since I first began to read it in the late 1990s: her plain style language and quiet, thoughtful, practical voice; the narrative details that pin her poems to Southern settings; her close attention to the ordinary lives of women and black people; her tender consciousness and deep empathy for other human persons. In particular, I have loved (and been instructed by) the way she uses objects in her poems: not just as aids to memory, nor merely as concrete inducements to inspiration, and never ever simply as decoration. Trethewey’s preferred objects – broken, abandoned, obsolete, rusted – remind us that she is a great elegist, our new Poet Laureate. At the same time, she is always looking ahead, urging herself (and us) out of the rut of the past, accelerated by poetry’s great capacity for restoring what has been stolen, at the same time that it urges us on with new possibilities for the future.
Here is a poem from Domestic Work, by Natasha Trethewey (Gray Wolf Press, 2000):
At the junk shop, I find an old pair
black with grease, the teeth still pungent
as burning hair. One is small,
fine toothed as if for a child. Holding it,
I think of my mother's slender wrist,
the curve of her neck as she leaned
over the stove, her eyes shut as she pulled
the wooden handle and laid flat the wisps
at her temples. The heat in our kitchen
made her glow that morning I watched her
wincing, the hot comb singeing her brow,
sweat glistening above her lips,
her face made strangely beautiful
as only suffering can do.