We’ll talk with newly-minted poet laureate Natasha Trethewey.
A new poet laureate of the United States was announced last week. Natasha Tretheway. A strong voice of the South and the soul. White father. Black mother. Murdered mother. A poet of history and memory, personal and national. Natasha Tretheway’s poetry is clear and powerful.
It speaks to Americans known and forgotten. To black soldiers guarding white prisoners in the Civil War. To survivors of Hurricane Katrina. To a mixed race daughter coming to terms with mother, father, America.
This hour, On Point: the next poet laureate of the United States, Natasha Tretheway.
Natasha Trethewey, a professor of creative writing at Emory University, she was name the nation’s poet laureate in June.
From Tom’s Reading List
The New York Times “The Library of Congress is to announce Thursday that the next poet laureate is Natasha Trethewey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of three collections and a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. Ms. Trethewey, 46, was born in Gulfport, Miss., and is the first Southerner to hold the post since Robert Penn Warren, the original laureate, and the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993.”
Slate “In her second volume, Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), Trethewey adopts the voice of a mixed-race prostitute from New Orleans’ red light district. Her latest book, Thrall, will be released in September 2012, the same month that she begins her appointment at the Library of Congress. These new poems are studies in racial estrangement as well as glittering art objects, like the 17th- and 18th-century oil paintings they describe. And they allow Trethewey to explore her fraught relationship with her father.”
MANO PRIETA (forthcoming, from “Thrall”)
The green drapery is like a sheet of water
behind us—a cascade in the backdrop
of the photograph, a rushing current
that would scatter us, carry us each
away. This is 1969 and I am three—
still light enough to be nearly the color
of my father. His armchair is a throne
and I am leaning into him, propped
against his knees—his hand draped
across my shoulder. On the chair’s arm
my mother looms above me,
perched at the edge as though
she would fall off. The camera records
her single gesture. Perhaps to still me,
she presses my arm with a forefinger,
makes visible a hypothesis of blood,
its empire of words: the imprint
on my body of her lovely dark hand.
PILGRIMAGE (from “Native Guard,” 2006)
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.
PASTORAL (from “Native Guard,” 2006)
In the dream, I am with the Fugitive
Poets. We’re gathered for a photograph.
Behind us, the skyline of Atlanta
hidden by the photographer’s backdrop —
a lush pasture, green, full of soft-eyed cows
lowing, a chant that sounds like no, no. Yes,
I say to the glass of bourbon I’m offered.
We’re lining up now — Robert Penn Warren,
his voice just audible above the drone
of bulldozers, telling us where to stand.
Say “race,” the photographer croons. I’m in
blackface again when the flash freezes us.
My father’s white, I tell them, and rural.
You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?
ELEGY FOR THE NATIVE GUARDS (from “Native Guard,” 2006)
Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea…
We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead
trailing the boat—streamers, noisy fanfare—
all the way to Ship Island. What we see
first is the fort, its roof of grass, a lee—
half reminder of the men who lived there—
a weathered monument to some of the dead.
Inside we follow the ranger, hurried
though we are to get to the beach. He tells
of graves lost in the Gulf, the island split
in half when Hurricane Camille hit,
shows us casemates, cannons, the store that sells
souvenirs, tokens of history long buried.
The Daughters of the Confederacy
have placed a plaque here, at the fort’s entrance—
each Confederate soldier’s name raised hard
in bronze; no names carved for the Native Guards—
2nd regiment, Union men, black phalanx.
What is monument to their legacy?
All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—
water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,
round, unfinished, half-open to the sky,
the elements—wind, rain—God’s deliberate eye.