Back in June Natasha Trethewey was named the next Poet Laureate of the United States. Her term begins next month. I had not heard of her before and when I looked her up it turns out she won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007. I’ve got to start paying better attention to these things apparently.
Trethewey is an exciting poet to have been chosen for Poet Laureate. She is only 46 and she is African American. The last African American named to the post was Rita Dove in 1993. Trethewey was born in Mississippi. Her mother was black and her father white and at the time there were still laws in the state that made the union illegal. When Trethewey was 19 her mother was murdered by her second husband. Speaking of her mother’s death Trethewey says:
Strangely enough, that was the moment when I both felt that I would become a poet and then immediately afterward felt that I would not. I turned to poetry to make sense of what had happened and started writing what I knew even then were really bad poems. It took me nearly 20 years to find the right language, to write poems that were successful enough to explain my own feelings to me and that might also be meaningful to others.
I recently finished reading Native Guard, the book of poems for which Trethewey won the Pulitzer. Her style is simple and straightforward but this does not mean easy and shallow. Her topics in this volume range across history and memory as she gives voice not only to her own life but also to those whose voices have been forgotten or not heard at all.
A few poems brought tears to my eyes, particularly “What is Evidence” which begins:
Not the fleeting bruises she’d cover
with makeup, a dark patch as if imprint
of a scope she’d pressed her eye too close to
Only the landscape of her body – splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal – her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.
There were poems that made me catch my breath as understanding dawned:
We tell the story every year –
How we peered from the windows, shades drawn –
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.
Describing the KKK burning a cross in your front yard as “nothing really happened” is crushing. Nothing happened? Rather so very much happened but nothing could be said about it expect to each other when the story was told every year.
There are also a number of poems in the book about the Louisiana Native Guards, which became the first officially sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Union army. The second and third regiments were made up of men who had been slaves only a few months prior to enlisting. It is not surprising that theirs is both a heroic and tragic story.
While the poems in Native Guard tend to have a certain sadness about them, I did not finish the book feeling sad. Instead I felt somehow wiser and more centered. I know that sounds like an odd thing say, but the poems have a groundedness to them, a rootedness, that I can’t think of any other way of describing my how I felt reading them.
Poets.org has a few of Trethewey’s poems online in their entirety. Go check them out, you won’t be disappointed.