Poetry as History: The Literary Vision of Natasha Trethewey

by John Coward

Natasha Trethewey is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (2007) and former Poet Laureate of the United States (2012–2014). Despite her literary acclaim, I only discovered Trethewey’s work a few months ago—a happy accident that has made me appreciate the power of the historical imagination in contemporary poetry. I say this because the poems in Native Guard, her award-winning book, confront issues of identity, race, and racial injustice in the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights era and beyond.

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Poetry is not exactly history, of course, but as Trethewey shows in this collection, poetry can tell historical stories in an imaginative way. In fact, this intersection of the personal and the historical is one of the strengths of Trethewey’s poetic vision. She links her life, her story, to the broader themes of the Civil War and Southern history in ways that give readers today—150 years after some of these events took place—a way to reimagine the twists of history.

As it happens, both Trethewey and I lived in Mississippi as children. I am not a native of Mississippi like Trethewey, but I was a schoolboy in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the 1950s and ’60s. Like Trethewey, I was shaped by my experiences as a child in Mississippi. One of those experiences was the shadow of the Civil War, which was ever-present in Tupelo because of several skirmishes fought nearby and a major Civil War battle, Shiloh, fought some miles north in Tennessee. My father, who was a history major in college and a Civil War buff, often took the family on battlefield tours around Tupelo. Thus Trethewey’s recollection of Civil War activities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast was—and is—familiar territory for me, even though, until I read this book, I was unaware of the role of former slaves who served in the Union army in units known as the Native Guard. Her poems about these men and their experiences guarding Confederate prisoners on Ship Island in the Gulf of Mexico form the foundation for this collection and serve as a vivid reminder of the agonies and ironies of war. Here’s one voice from Ship Island:

The hot air carries
the stench of limbs, rotten in the bone pit.
Flies swarm—a black cloud. We hunger, grow weak.
When men die, we eat their share of hardtack.

Unlike Trethewey, I’m not a biracial woman and I never suffered discrimination or racial injustice. But I do recall the inequalities of life in Tupelo in the 1950s and ’60s. Like a lot of towns in the Deep South, there was a white side of town, which was relatively prosperous, and a black side of town, which was not. As a middle-class white kid in Tupelo, I went to segregated schools and a segregated church and swam at a segregated pool. I also saw the black schools in Tupelo, which were older and more rundown than the schools I went to. At some point in my adolescence I had to confront the ugliness of Mississippi segregation, which even as a child I sensed was deeply unfair and which I could not defend. And although I did not suffer racial discrimination in Tupelo, I was shaped by the Civil Rights movement in ways I did not fully understand or appreciate at the time. I’m sure my experiences in Mississippi were very different from Trethewey’s, but we share some ideas about that fraught place in that tumultuous era of American history.

Trethewey came to poetry more or less naturally through her parents and her mother’s extended family in Mississippi. Her white Canadian father was a poet and scholar who earned a Ph.D. in English at Tulane. Her mother, who was black, majored in theater in college. Her father read his poems to her as a child and she paid attention to her mother who, she recalls, was a very precise speaker. In a 2016 interview, Trethewey also remembered the storytelling tradition of her mother’s family. In Gulfport, her family lived next-door to a great aunt, known as Sugar, who worked with children in Sunday school at the Baptist church. Trethewey recalls Sugar’s love of language and practicing recitations with her. She also remembers the ladies of the church meeting at her grandmother’s house to read scripture and to talk and sing and tell stories. “Language came to me in all of those places,” Trethewey has said.

In her review of Native Guard, poet Carrie Shipers writes that the poems in the first section of Native Guard “ask what home means after we have left, as well as what happens when our home leaves us or refuses to acknowledge our claim to it.” This is a perceptive observation. Indeed, these questions complicate the idea of home, and what it means to be from somewhere, even after we have left that place far behind; or, what it means when the place we once knew and loved has changed and is not really the same place anymore; or, finally and more cruelly, what it means when the place we once knew and loved somehow contests our very claim to that place.

To put it another way, Trethewey’s poems grapple with the ways that time changes things—how lives become history, how history becomes hazy and distant, and how the meanings we attach to the people and events alter in our memory. Trethewey is working through this fertile ground in her poems—contemplating place and history, family and race, as well as loss, memory and meaning. For readers who take the time to savor these poems, Trethewey offers powerful insights into our nation’s complicated racial history.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

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