Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard
Ship Island is a small barrier island off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, surrounded by jellyfish in the spring and accessible only by ferry. It is the kind of place that New Orleanians might go for a day at “the beach” as an alternative to Bay St. Louis, whose waters and sands are flat and gray as a piece of roofing slate. There is a fort there, the history of which was not regularly disclosed to visitors. Thus, it is all the more remarkable that Natasha Trethewey, a Gulfport poet of mixed race who is just a couple of years younger than I am, came to know the real (and I am convinced deliberately obscured) story of Ship Island and its relation to the Louisiana Native Guard from a white woman who overheard her conversation in a restaurant. The poems Trethewey has written are rich with the voice of late nineteenth-century gens de couleur narratives familiar to students of Louisiana history. Although the book is “standard” length and not literally an epic, its subject matter is epic in historical scope and importance, and is told from a point of view almost entirely unknown to (or ignored by) intellectuals outside of the immediate region.
As in her previous collections, Domestic Work and Bellocq’s Ophelia, Trethewey focuses unblinkingly on the interstices of race and place in the Gulf South. To understand her work, it may be necessary for white readers from other places to know something about racial stereotypes and how these do and do not apply to the subregion. It is beyond the scope of this paper to give a quick course in white Creoles and black Creoles, free people of color, and so forth; however, James Hollandsworth’s The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War and John Blassingame’s Black New Orleans: 1860-1880 will give the reader a solid contextual grounding for much of Trethewey’s work. Trethewey, although mixed-race, is not one of these Creoles. Even so, it is not necessary to be an expert on Gulf Coast race relations to appreciate the human experience that is both specifically defined by and transcendent of race that she portrays in Native Guard.
Trethewey shows her formal “chops” throughout the book, particularly her highly-refined sensibility for natural, conversational substitutions within the iambic pentameter line. Some critics who interpret more than the slightest variation on meter or traditional English forms to be prima facie evidence of metrical incompetence undoubtedly will find many sour grapes here. Marilyn Nelson’s essay “Owning the Masters” addresses the misguided racialization of this aesthetic point in depth, but this excerpt is relevant: “If reading well means reading politically, conscious of the social considerations which inform any text, those of us who come from traditions of oppression find ourselves estranged from canonical texts, and must fight—against them and our arguments with them—to own them (14).” One might do this by mastering, then remastering, the master’s tools.
Such ownership is evident in the collection’s title poem. The ten linked, unrhymed sonnets exemplify Trethewey’s characteristic flexibility; even the linked lines exhibit as much variation as possible. For example, compare the first and last lines: “Truth be told, I do not want to forget” (25) and “we tread upon, forgetting. Truth be told” (30). A thematically-telling variation, really the turn of the larger poem, comes between “April 1863” and “June 1863” on page 28: “their names shall deck the page of history” versus “Some names shall deck the page of history.” Yet elsewhere in the poem, Trethewey follows the strict tradition of verbatim linking lines (“When men die, we eat their share of hardtack” and “When men die, we eat their share of hardtack” ), as well as the single-word variation: (“there are things which must be accounted for” versus “These are things which much be accounted for” ). Taken as a whole, this range of linking devices within a single, shortened crown-like cycle demonstrates Trethewey’s awareness and mastery of traditional forms, as well as her confidence in how and where to adapt these forms to her own purposes.
In an interview with Pearl McHaney in Five Points, Trethewey explains her use of various forms throughout the collection, particularly crediting the late Agha Shahid Ali’s efforts to bring the ghazal form into English:
The introductory essay [in Ravishing Disunities] is so illuminating about what a ghazal is, the qualities of the ghazal. The particular one is the idea of disunity, the idea that these are closed stanzas that don’t necessarily support or aim to support narrative or even linear movement, that they are separate, that in the juxtaposition of one stanza to the next is some sort of tension and excitement can happen. And movement. And also that it is a form that is a kind of call and response [. . . ]. I was thinking about all these disunified things. They were all connected but they were things that I didn’t think I could write about in a straight narrative—my Jesus year or my parents breaking laws in Mississippi. [ . . . ] So it was the idea of “ravishing disunity” that allowed me to do it (109).
Trethewey’s understanding of the ghazal could also be interpreted as her own larger ars poetica: an exploration of juxtaposition, conflict, and the uncomfortable interstices of race and history that she inhabits. By implication, the reader also inhabits these places with her. In that interview, Trethewey notes that the ghazal requires the poet to write his or her own name into the poem, which was “the thing that made the poem [“Miscegenation”] get written for me”(109).
It was not so long ago that Mississippi rescinded its “miscegenation” law that made interracial marriage a felony. Since Jim Crow, this law had became progressively more severe (moving from one-fourth Negro blood to one-eighth, for example, as well as equating interracial marriage with incest and prohibiting out-of-state interracial marriages) and expressly forbade discussions or writing in favor of such unions. Mississippi voters repealed the law by a slim margin in 1987. That the law had technically been struck down (by Loving v. Virginia) the year after Trethewey was born had little practical impact on her own experience:
In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.
They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong – mis in Mississippi.
A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same
as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.
Faulkner’s Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name
for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.
My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.
I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.
When I turned 33 my father said, It’s your Jesus year – you’re the same
age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.
I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name –
though I’m not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi. (36)
The call-and-response nature of the ghazal’s radif, or repeating endword(s), as well as its historical use for portraying themes of forbidden love, make it especially suited to Trethewey’s material. Another feature, the “ravishing disunity”of the ghazal’s dissociated couplets, creates for the reader the sense of looking through an album of snapshots. The individual events seem unrelated on the surface, yet they are bound together by selection and by a selector—a life.
This brings us to another obsession of Trethewey’s—the photograph as both artifact and composition. Bellocq’s Ophelia was completely driven by Trethewey’s interest in photographic composition—which, she has pointed out on several occasions, is defined not merely by what is present in any given picture, but also by what is absent, that which is beyond the frame. Knowing what to leave out is as essential to art as knowing what to leave in. Trethewey’s larger oeuvre focuses on exploring what has been left out, elided, or hidden, and bringing it to light; moreover, she is unblinking in her choices. In this, Trethewey’s work is highly political, concerned with recovering historical memory and with bearing witness to people and events generally marginalized or ignored by Southern literature:
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? (35)
By making the photographer responsible for framing the composition in racial terms, Trethewey forces the reader to be aware of looking through a particular lens. The pastoral blanketing-over of Atlanta’s reality is also the framer’s doing, symbolic of this city’s particular penchant for replacing the historical realities of Confederate rule with the imagined movie-set of the exponentially romanticized and fictionalized film version of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. The poet-speaker, appearing in blackface as if this gathering were a literary minstrel show, is both black and not-black on various levels: think of blacks wearing blackface, whites wearing blackface, the ostensibly autobiographical persona who is both and neither black and white, “passing” with her Southern poet collegaues yet disguised as (half of) herself. Then there is the imagined conversation she makes with the Fugitives—a moniker linked with escaped slaves—and their well-meaning, curious response to her attempts to establish common ground. (That the Fugitives were as notoriously sexist as they were racist, apologia about their being men of their time and place notwithstanding, doesn’t come up in this poem.) As a larger metaphor about composition, selection, and canonicity, this poem “takes its stand.”
In poem after poem, Trethewey holds either a lens or a mirror to the reader’s eye, acting by turns as director, producer, witness, and reporter. This almost journalistic point of view, combined with both harrowing lived experience and accurately-researched historical documentation, offers contemporary poets a reminder that many stories—ours and our various peoples’–remain buried, waiting for “the news from poetry,” waiting for a witness with steady nerves and an unfaltering gaze.
Ali, Agha Shahid, ed. Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan, 2000.
Blassingame, John W. Black New Orleans: 1860-1880. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.
Hollandsworth, James G. The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P , 1995.
McHaney, Pearl Amelia. “An Interview with Natasha Trethewey.” In Five Points 11:3. 93-115.
Nelson, Marilyn. “Owning the Masters.” In After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative, and Tradition. Ed. Annie Finch. Ashland, OR: Story Line P, 1999. 8-17.
Trethewey, Natasha. Bellocq’s Ophelia. St. Paul: Graywolf P, 2002.
__________. Domestic Work. St. Paul: Graywolf P, 2000.
__________. Native Guard. New York: Mariner Books, 2006.