The announcement came today. Here’s a review I wrote of her book, Native Guard, a few years back:

Natasha Trethewey’s recent collection brings poetry back into the home. Or at least, it brought it back into mine. The elegant simplicity of her style often draped over complex forms is soft and inviting even when the subject matter is cold, stricken, and calloused.

The presence of her mother invades every page. Indeed, for Trethewey, poetry becomes the monument for her mother: the physical marker on the landscape of history. It is a marker that history would just as soon forget, much like the Louisiana Native Guard, the first officially sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army and the focus of the second section. Trethewey’s poetry creates a space for remembrance.

But she does not travel into this space without hesitation. The opening poem, “Theories of Space and Time,” illustrates her acknowledgment of what this trip might cost: “You can get there from here, though / there’s no going home.” The photograph someone snaps along the way and presents upon your return shows a different you. Nothing is quite the same again. But the will to remember, to create a history that remembers, (thankfully for us) overcomes the poet.

One of my favorite poems, “What the Body Can Say,” deals with the inability to reconcile sign and signified without a mediating context. In this case, the context is the body that figures forth “something” unnameable. As with the scarred back of the slave in “Native Guard,” the body becomes the organ of speech, saying what the mouth or pen does not. This thought is wonderfully reinforced by the image of a notebook crosshatched in two different hands: one the hand of a white southerner, the other the hand of a black Native Guard soldier (this begs the questions: does Trethewey consider the work of the poet painful or traumatic?).

The need for a human contextualizing agent comes up again and again throughout the first section: the poet offers herself as context in “Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971”; “What is Evidence” again depicts the scarred body, contrasting it with the (less meaningful) historical document; “Letter” emphasizes the fragility of signs, especially ones outside the body (e.g. in the form of a letter to a friend); and “After Your Death” depicts the emotional magnitude of bodiless signs in the context of grief.

Section 2 of Native Guard deals primarily with untold history. Stories that both the orthodox accounts and the landscape itself has forgotten. Section 3 is more personal and explores the role of the poet, our poet, in matters of race, the South, and the African-American’s position among the two. Poems like “Incident” weave form with meaning with subtlety to overscore powerful images while poems like “Monument” go straight for the jugular: “At my mother’s grave, ants streamed in / and out like arteries, a tiny hill rising / above her untended plot.”

I’ve read Native Guard twice I would eagerly suggest it to others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *