I wonder how many Americans have a favorite poet. Mine is Seamus Heaney.
So I was delighted recently when our new poet laureate acknowledged how important his book North was in helping her understand her own relationship to history.
In our high-tech, 24/7- flash-communication world, some may not find poetry of value; but thought recorded in artful language as a result of deep reflection may be more of worth now than ever.
Our last two poet laureates, Philip Levine and W.S. Merwin, were men in their eighties.
Our new poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey (”TRETH-eh-way”), was born in Gulfport, Mississippi in l966. In 2007 she won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Native Guard.
James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, designated her the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate.
“Natasha Trethewey is an outstanding poet/historian in the mold of Robert Penn Warren, our first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Her poems dig beneath the surface of history—personal or communal, from childhood or from a century ago—to explore the human struggles that we all face,” said Billington as he made the announcement.
Trethewey is intrigued by the ironic contradictions in her life experiences. Her parents, black mother and white father, were married illegally due to anti-miscegenation laws. Her birthday is April 26, Confederate Memorial Day. She was born exactly one hundred years after the holiday was created. Her parents divorced when she was six years old. When she was just nineteen years old and enrolled in college, her mother was murdered by an abusive-second husband she had divorced.
Trethewey recalls, “I turned to poetry to make sense of what had happened and started writing what I knew even then were really bad poems. It took me nearly twenty years to find the right language, to write poems that were successful enough to explain my own feelings to me and that might also be meaningful to others.”
Family, memory, the South and racial perceptions leak into her poems and into us as she leads us to reflect upon this complicated, diverse and by turns, tolerant-intolerant society called the United States of America. I have a feeling she will be an outstanding poet laureate. A half dozen of her poems follow. I hope you will savor them.
I am four in this photograph, standing
on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,
my hands on the flowered hips
of a bright bikini. My toes dig in,
curl around wet sand. The sun cuts
the rippling Gulf in flashes with each
tidal rush. Minnows dart at my feet
glinting like switchblades. I am alone
except for my grandmother, other side
of the camera, telling me how to pose.
It is 1970, two years after they opened
the rest of this beach to us,
forty years since the photograph
where she stood on a narrow plot
of sand marked colored, smiling,
her hands on the flowered hips
of a cotton meal-sack dress.
For my father
I think by now the river must be thick
with salmon. Late August, I imagine it
as it was that morning: drizzle needling
the surface, mist at the banks like a net
settling around us — everything damp
and shining. That morning, awkward
and heavy in our hip waders, we stalked
into the current and found our places —
you upstream a few yards and out
far deeper. You must remember how
the river seeped in over your boots
and you grew heavier with that defeat.
All day I kept turning to watch you, how
first you mimed our guide’s casting
then cast your invisible line, slicing the sky
between us; and later, rod in hand, how
you tried — again and again — to find
that perfect arc, flight of an insect
skimming the river’s surface. Perhaps
you recall I cast my line and reeled in
two small trout we could not keep.
Because I had to release them, I confess,
I thought about the past — working
the hooks loose, the fish writhing
in my hands, each one slipping away
before I could let go. I can tell you now
that I tried to take it all in, record it
for an elegy I’d write — one day —
when the time came. Your daughter,
I was that ruthless. What does it matter
if I tell you I learned to be? You kept casting
your line, and when it did not come back
empty, it was tangled with mine. Some nights,
dreaming, I step again into the small boat
that carried us out and watch the bank receding —
my back to where I know we are headed.
Here, the Mississippi carved
its mud-dark path, a graveyard
for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
Here, the river changed its course,
turning away from the city
as one turns, forgetting, from the past —
the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up
above the river’s bend — where now
the Yazoo fills the Mississippi’s empty bed.
Here, the dead stand up in stone, white
marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand
on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;
they must have seemed like catacombs,
in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,
candlelit, underground. I can see her
listening to shells explode, writing herself
into history, asking what is to become
of all the living things in this place?
This whole city is a grave. Every spring —
Pilgrimage — the living come to mingle
with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders
in the long hallways, listen all night
to their silence and indifference, relive
their dying on the green battlefield.
At the museum, we marvel at their clothes —
preserved under glass — so much smaller
than our own, as if those who wore them
were only children. We sleep in their beds,
the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped
in flowers — funereal — a blur
of petals against the river’s gray.
The brochure in my room calls this
living history. The brass plate on the door reads
Prissy’s Room. A window frames
the river’s crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream,
the ghost of history lies down beside me,
rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.
All day I’ve listened to the industry
of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree
just outside my window. Hard at his task,
his body is a hinge, a door knocker
to the cluttered house of memory in which
I can almost see my mother’s face.
She is there, again, beyond the tree,
its slender pods and heart-shaped leaves,
hanging wet sheets on the line — each one
a thin white screen between us. So insistent
is this woodpecker, I’m sure he must be
looking for something else — not simply
the beetles and grubs inside, but some other gift
the tree might hold. All day he’s been at work,
tireless, making the green hearts flutter.
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?
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.
Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,
circling them just above water
and silver backs of minnows
flitting here then there between
the sun spots and the shadows.
This is how you hold the pole
to cast the line out straight.
Now put that worm on your hook,
throw it out and wait.
She sat spitting tobacco juice
into a coffee cup.
Hunkered down when she felt the bite,
jerked the pole straight up
reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back.
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
’cause one of its sides is black.
The other side is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.