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Natalia Trethewey

On the poetry of Natalia Trethewey

Dateline Huntington LI NY, May 21, 2022 — The year is 2022. The age of the Internet, a world in the grip of a pandemic of world-wide proportions, and a nation profoundly divided by its politics. An age in which individuals stand uneasily at the intersection of their personal lives and the shifting and often treacherous historical moment which constitutes their time.

Fitting then, the selection of Natasha Trethewey – Pulitzer Prize winner, two time US Poet Laureate, and a poet who famously asks “what knowledge haunts each body, what history, what phantom ache?” — as the 2022 Poet in Residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, here in West Hills NY.

Trethewey, whose personal story has at this point already been told and retold in innumerable interviews and profiles, has ample reason to be conscious of this intersection. Born in the deep south’s Gulf Coast to an interracial couple, raised both in Atlanta by her mother and by her father in New Orleans during and after the tumultuous civil rights era, is fully heir to and forthright in confronting the intersections of race, gender, and economic exploitation.

The yoke of her birth. The dark foil in this American story. The contradictions and conundrums, histories too painful to remember, but impossible to bury or suppress.

Histories that, in the hands of a poet as capable as Trethewey’s, may be ‘squeezed into tightly controlled lines’ that stay with the reader long after being first experienced.

In Domestic Worker, 1937, she offers an achingly tender portrait of a woman who spends all week cleaning other people’s houses, ‘beating time on the rugs/blowing dust from the broom/like dandelion spores, each one/a wish for something better.”

In Flounder, she gives us the perspective of an interracial child grappling with identity issues, at the hands of a clumsily unhelpful relative, handing her a fish: Here, she said, put this on your head./She handed me a hat/ you ’bout as white as your dad,/and you gone stay like that… one side black/ the other white”

It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.

Trethewey exhibits her attentiveness to the historical – and its intersection with the personal — in her writings about the ‘Native Guard,’ the Black regiment raised in New Orleans that fought valiantly for the Union during the Civil War. “When I wrote about those troops, I tried to provide an understanding of their actual experiences,” she says. “It was not just a political thing.”

This is a subject which she says connects her in a special way with Whitman, who wrote about seeing the Native Guard on parade in New Orleans. “Not just that though, Whitman talked about how the ‘real war won’t get into the history books.’ Meaning that real life experiences of ordinary soldiers. I took that to heart.”

For a person like Trethewey, visiting the past is neither a journalist exercise nor a simple jaunt through a museum. Take her poem Pilgrimage, for example, in which she depicts going to an Antebellum historic site, “the ghost of history lies down/ beside me, rolls over,/ pins me beneath a heavy arm.”

What’s the point of re-examining the past? What is generalizable? “Well, there are things which are our shared history as Americans,” she says. Sometimes for a poet to formulate an understanding of what it means to be an individual in a society, one has a role as a critic of that society. “It’s not necessarily negative, or adversarial. You’re just doing your job.”

This precept squares with Trethewey’s notion that the road to understanding of self and society sometimes bends precariously through revisiting the personal to examine where it intersects with the share historical and social experience.

Of course, it is possible that in once sense you end up, like the speaker in Theories of Time and Space, standing under a threatening sky at mile marker one on Mississippi Rte 49 waiting for someone to take your picture. ‘A natural conclusion – dead end’ she proclaims.

Yet any journey a person takes may bring them someplace they’ve never been, even perhaps a place where understanding and resolution, even hope, intersect.

You can get there from here,” says Natasha Trethewey, in her unforgettably honest poetry. “But there’s no going home.”

(as seen in The Long Islander newspaper, founded by Walt Whitman in 1838