Natasha Trethewey is the perfect poet for the 21st Century Obama-era United States. Her work embodies much that is current and important in today’s America as the country is being forced in so many ways to move out of its selfish childhood and into a more mature adult place in the world. To claim she is the most contemporary of poets may be a bit odd to say of someone whose poetry is so much steeped in the historical past. But as she examines history via her precise poetic dissections of paintings, photos and texts, and works to untangle her own story of her American heritage, she lays bare our country’s complex and often troublesome saga of race relations, white superiority, and hubris with all its lingering prejudices and bias.
In 2007, Trethewey was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her Native Guard, a series of poems that swings between the Civil War-, Ante-bellum-, and 20th Century-era South. Tretheway’s own parents (he white, she black) met in the early 1960s at Frankfort State College in Kentucky, and, as Trethewey writes in “Miscegention,”
In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.
They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong – mis in Mississippi.
Two poems later, in “Southern History,” she weaves herself into the story:
Before the war, they were happy, he said,
quoting our textbook. (This was senior-year
history class.) The slaves were clothed, fed,
and better off under a master’s care.
I watched the words blur on the page. No one
raised a hand, disagreed. Not even me.
This would have been about 1984. It’s shocking that even then, the real story’s not being told.
Trethewey’s most recent book of poems, Thrall, published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, traces the origins of the story back even further. At a recent reading at New York City’s Cosmopolitan Club, co-hosted by the University of Georgia, of which Trethewey is an alumna, she read exclusively from this book and talked a bit about her work.
Thrall is an amazing book, the language leading the reader so gently into the brutal world of colonial dominion that we are smack in the middle of it, forced to look into the mirror of history before we can pull the cloak of denial over our eyes. Even the word “Thrall,” so close to “thrill” or “trill” and moving from the whispering “th” through its cascading “all,” does not imply the imprisonment of slave or captive that it actually denotes.
In the four-part poem “Taxonomy,” the poet describes a series of 18th Century portraits that could, at quick glance, look like simple familial paintings or ones of a master and his slaves. But these are casta paintings, and they were created to codify the equations of mixed race families. Trethewey deftly incorporates lilting phrases like “crown of lace,” “soft curl of her hair,” and “An infant, she is borne” to show how the delicacy of the painting can obscure its more sinister implications. But by the closing lines of the first poem in the series we are shown a closeup of the servant who carries the mestizo child:
… He is dark
as history, origin of the word
native: the weight of blood,
a pale mistress on his back.
heavier every year.
Trethewey’s way of unveiling injustices and illuminating wrong-thinking echoes Percy Bysshe Selley’s, “Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.” And yet the distorted must still be righted. In the poem with which she closed her reading, “Enlightenment,” the poet and her father revisit Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello after it’s been scientifically determined that Sally Hemings’s ancestors are part of Jefferson’s own lineage. Trethewey recounts how, on their first visit, her father defended Jefferson’s actions:
how Jefferson hated slavery, though – out
of necessity, my father said – had to own
slaves; that his moral philosophy meant
he could not have fathered those children:
would have been impossible, my father said.
In the present visit, they both now know the real story, and their love for each other has endured despite her having to find her own way past the “knowledge” he’d previously passed on. This “knowledge,” the poet implies, is what we must always be questioning and fighting against, these seemingly fixed barriers that keep us “other to each other,” as Trethewey phrases it in the last line of the poem. And as the book’s epigraphs so aptly put it:
What is love?
One name for it is knowledge.
-- Robert Penn Warren
After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
-- T.S. Eliot