Natasha Trethewey and Native Guard

It's a slim volume, 51 pages including notes and acknowledgments, but Trethewey packs Native Guard full of poetic goodness. At least that's my take on it. I have problems determining if I like poetry because it's good or because it speaks to my own experiences and biases, but I really think this is good stuff.

I've been a fan of Trethewey since her second book, Bellocq's Ophelia, poems written about and in the voices of Storyville prostitutes and the photographer who captured their images in the New Orleans of the early 1900's. I had the same problem then--are they good poems or are they precious to me because they speak to something familiar in me?

Well, it's not always a sure bet to agree with the people who choose the Pulitzer Prize in poetry--on occasion, I think they decide to offer a lifetime achievement award by giving it to a poet's selected works, which is somewhat like giving a Grammy to a Greatest Hits album--but just as they did last year with Claudia Emerson's beautiful Late Wife, I think the Pulitzer committee did well here.

Native Guard is divided into 3 sections, but the book is all Mississippi. The first section is made up of deeply personal poems, mostly about her mother, murdered at age 40 by her second husband. In the poem "What is evidence," she doesn't shrink away from this violence.

Not the fleeting bruises she'd cover
with makeup, a dark patch as if imprint
of a scope she'd pressed her eye too close to,
looking for a way out, nor the quiver
in the voice she'd steady, leaning
into a pot of bones on the stove.
And that's the tame imagery. She ramps it up as the poem continues for all of 14 lines.

The second section goes back in time, first to turn of the century Vicksburg, and then to the Civil War, where it seems all southern writers must go at some point or another. But Trethewey does it differently in the title poem, a ten sonnet sequence "in the voice of" a freed slave who has become a Union soldier. I use "in the voice of" loosely, because Trethewey doesn't spice up the lines with dialect or try to mimic the time (like Maurice Manning did in his utterly forgettable A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, & c.)--she just writes beautiful, painful lines.
Yes: I was born a slave, at harvest time
in the Parish of Ascension; I've reached
thirty-three with history of one younger
inscribed upon my back. I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory--flawed, changeful, that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave.

But it's in the last section where she really gets me, because she speaks about being a child of mixed parentage in Mississippi, and while it never rants (and I love a good rant sometimes), it's still cutting, and it deals with the love/hate relationship that most honest southerners have with their past and current culture. The poem "Southern History" deals with a pet peeve of mine--the way high school history classes glossed over or lied about the pre-Civil War south and the issue of slavery. It's something I've mentioned far more gracelessly in a poem or two--I could probably use a lesson or two in subtlety.

So get the book. It's worth the 12 bucks or so you'll spend on it.

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