CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (13): Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, writing at the intersection of personal and cultural history

Natasha Trethewey (b. 1966), U.S. Poet Laureate, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, Pultizer Prize for Poetry, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University
Natasha Trethewey (b. 1966), U.S. Poet Laureate, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University

After hearing Natasha Trethewey read at a poetry festival, Librarian of Congress Emeritus James H. Billington said he was “struck by a kind of classic quality with a richness and variety of structures with which she presents her poetry … she intermixes her story with the historical story in a way that takes you deep into the human tragedy of it.”

Natasha Trethewey is perhaps uniquely equipped by personal history, American history and public discourse, place of birth, education, inclination and innate talent to address a cruel and criminal aspect of our culture that dogs us unrelentingly: the roots, memory and legacy of racism. She is the daughter of a white father (poet Eric Trethewey) and black mother (social worker Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough).  Her background is rooted in the South. Born in Mississippi, when she was six years old her parents divorced and her young life was then split between Louisiana and Georgia. In Trethewey’s hands the juxtaposition of her biracial heritage and our shared history of colonialism, slavery and racism make a powerful case for the role of poetry to effectively and unflinchingly deliver truth.

At the time of her parent’s marriage and Trethewey’s birth anti-miscegenation laws were still in place, making their marriage illegal. Our laws against interracial marriage were struck down in 1967:

“Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967),[X 1] [X 2] is a landmark civil rights decision of the United States Supreme Court, which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

“The case was brought by Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, who had been sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for marrying each other. Their marriage violated the state’s anti-miscegenation statute, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited marriage between people classified as “white” and people classified as “colored”. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision determined that this prohibition was unconstitutional, reversing Pace v. Alabama (1883) and ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States.” [Wikipedia]

51T8yxaK1xL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ Thrall: Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2006) – a sequel to Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2005) –  is breathtakingly eloquent. Trethewey explores her relationship with her father in the first poem about a fishing trip. Written as an elegy though he is still alive, it tells him in effect that she is the better poet . . . or so I infered.

Tretheway moves on from that quiet meditation to questions of identity and race, exploring colonial attitudes about race reflected in the art of Spanish painters and the Casta (caste, categorization of mixed-race peoples) Paintings of 17th and 18th Century Mexico. I was unfamiliar with most of the paintings and painters, chose to look them up.  That, however, did not detract one iota from engagement with this collection.

The work is exquisite: formal, clear, precise, perceptive … Although the material is distressing, I find Trethewey’s style understated. These poems are not strident but they have sinew and bone. Her forms are mostly free verse. One poem is a series of cinquains and another is a villanelle.


In the video below, Trethewey offers some insight into the development of the collection and reads the eponymous poem. You will also find a sampling of her poems HERE.

Note: The painting Thrall that inspired the poem is by Juan de Pareja who was apparently the child of indentured servants and left as property to the Spanish painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez to whom he became an assistant. Juan de Pareja was born in 1606, freed in 1650 and died in 1670. The painting featured on the book’s cover is Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo by Juan Rodríguez Juárez (1675-1728).

If you are reading this post from an email, you will have to click through to the site to view the video.

© 2016, essay, Jamie Dedes, All right reserved; Natasha Threthewey’s photograph, Jalissa Gray under CC BY-SA 3.0; cover design, publisher