The Wounds of Trethewey

Poet Natasha Trethewey shared poems from her Pulitzer Prize winning collection Native Guard and her new collection Thrall for the English Reading Series.

PROVO, Utah (Sept. 29, 2017)—Confederate monuments in the South are currently an area of much disagreement. For poet Natasha Trethewey, Confederate monuments act as a daily reminder of the “brutal history of injustice, violence, and oppression” when people who looked like her were enslaved, persecuted, and violated because of the color of their skin. Trethewey said, “In his memorial to William Butler Yeats, D. H. Auden wrote ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.’ Likewise, my native land, my South, my Mississippi . . . hurt me into poetry, inflicting my first wound.” Identifying herself as mixed-race with a white, Canadian father and a black mother, Trethewey has a wide, engaging smile and sparkling brown eyes. Her speech is slow, methodical, noticeably rhythmic; both while she recites her poetry and describes it. For the English Reading Series, Trethewey shared several of the poems from her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Native Guard (2006) and her newest collection, Thrall (2012).

“In my work, I try to grapple with the history that I have been given, my place in it, and also push back against the kinds of received knowledge rooted in blindness and willed amnesia,” she explained. “Walking around the South and looking at all the Confederate monuments, you might think that the South won the war. My South did win the war—black soldiers who fought for their own freedom and advancement of our nation’s creed.”

Her childhood in Mississippi inspires much of her poetry, but her “other wound, the deeper one” was the death of her mother when she was 19 years old. Her mother was murdered by an ex-husband, the man she had married after Trethewey’s parents divorced when she was six years old. In her poetry, Trethewey often refers to this pivotal moment in her life and sees traces of her mother in many places. The powerful pain of this traumatic experience is clear in her poem Articulation, inspired by a painting of St. Gertrude by Miguel Cabrera (1763). “How not to see, in the saint’s image / my mother’s last portrait—the dark backdrop / her dress black as a habit, the bright edge / of her afro ringing her face with light?” Her poetry expresses a deep, powerful pain—unique to her experience but poignant for all listeners—especially when Trethewey writes about her mother, who was taken from her when she was barely an adult.

Trethewey also searches for inspiration in words themselves, using her personal Oxford English Dictionary as a resource. Interested in writing poetry about Native American peoples, she searched “native” in the dictionary and found not the definition of something originating in a certain place, but “someone born in a condition of servitude, a thrall.” Certainly there is a history of many civilizations conquering lands and subjecting the natives to servitude, wielding white supremacy, and creating a ranking system of races to keep power. In her poem South, Trethewey explores the native thrall, her birth, and laws against interracial marriages and the birth of mixed-race babies which were common in the South. “I return / to Mississippi, state that made a crime / of me—mulatto, half-breed—native / in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.” Though the case Loving v. Virginia declared any state laws prohibiting interracial marriage illegal in 1967, Trethewey explained, not until the late ’90s did Alabama hold a vote to remove the laws officially on the books, at which point 42% of the population voted to keep the laws “so that it at least symbolically could be said that parents like mine could not be married legally and people like me could not be born legally in the state.”

For her final poem, Trethewey shared Enlightenment based on her experience touring Monticello with her father. The tour now acknowledges that Jefferson fathered many of Sally Hemings’s children and Trethewey found it to be a parallel experience between what Jefferson thought of his children—that he was somehow improving them by diluting their blackness—and the perspective her father held that his white skin was somehow a blessing to his daughter:

I did not know then the subtext

    of our story, that my father could imagine

Jefferson’s words made flesh in my flesh —

the improvement of the blacks in body

       and mind, in the first instance of their mixture

with the whites — or that my father could believe

he’d made me better.

When the tour suggests the group travels into the past, Trethewey jokes about having to leave her father to go to an area of the estate where she would have been allowed. “I’ve made a joke of it, this history / that links us—white father, black daughter— / even as it renders us other to each other.”

—Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the English department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Photo courtesy of Natasha Trethewey