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From the series introduction:
I am dancing and screaming with joy even more often than usual because Natasha Trethewey is our next US Poet Laureate! For those of you who reserve your excitement for things like the election of the first African American multi-racial president, I must tell you that this is a really BIG DEAL! As Audre Lorde explains, “Poetry is not a luxury, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives,” and I am affirmed to the bone that one of the most insightful, passionate, incisive, and creative thinkers of our time is the new United States Poet Laureate! Do people usually shout the words “United States Poet Laureate”? Goodness.
As an African American woman poet from the South, Natasha Trethewey is indeed a triple threat to the state of poetry as usual in the United States. It’s very rare for an African American woman to be named US Poet Laureate (in fact it’s only happened once, ever.) It is very rare for someone from the south to be named US Poet Laureate (in fact it’s only happened once, ever.) And this has never ever ever happened at the same time. And there is no reason to assume it would. But it did! Dancing and screaming.
Much is being made of these identity factors (mostly the African-American woman and multi-racial parts) in Trethewey’s appointments. However, the real reason that Natasha Trethewey’s appointment is historic is not the novelty of her identity in the exclusive field of career poetry. Even though Trethewey is one of the youngest poets to ever be named US Poet Laureate, the true value for all of us in Natasha Trethewey holding the complicated poet, advisor, beacon, exemplar position of US Poet Laureate is the depth of her work and the rigor of her perspective on the history, potential, and meaning of the United States.
Read the rest of the series introduction here:
Part One: Trethewey, Time Travel, and Telekinesis
I wanted to make this post hours ago, more than twelve hours ago on the entire other side of this day, but alas the logistics of life are not as magical as poetry, except when they are. As fellow Black feminist blogger Renina Jarmon says “Black girls are from the future,” and on a day like this, between journeys, far from home, and subject to the coldness of satellites and machines, like everyday, I find myself wishing our thickly networked post-digital future would hurry up and get here, when our skills of communication have become telepathic, instant and intimate and the Internet becomes obsolete except as a metaphor for what we already know: we are profoundly connected to each other and those connections are magic.
What I call the necessity for Black girl nerd magic, supernatural realness that queers time and space accounting for the lives and brilliance of the oppressed, is not just necessary for people like me with an article to post and miles to fly. Emboldened by Natasha Trethewey’s position as US Poet Laureate, I dare say it is a national imperative in the quest to move out of stagnation in the status quo, the willful forgetting of the conditions and histories of oppression and a collective resignation to a future in which we inevitably doom ourselves to our very worst selves.
Enter Natasha Trethewey, offering now on an even more national scale poetic historical justice, the non-linear reclamation of our lives, and an attunement to the possibility of presence that is impossible to ignore.
In her first book of poems Domestic Work, Natasha Trethewey introduce what so far is a career-long practice of revealing what no one really wants to see, that dirt that domestic workers are charged with hiding from the view of the privileged. Trethewey has a different idea of domestic work, an idea of what the national internal priorities of the United States should be that is accountable to her ancestors, domestic workers that bore the brunt of the multiple forms of US oppression.
For example, the poem “History Lesson” reveals and transforms the way that history is produced by poetically reproducing a photograph that is itself a reproduction of a former photograph. The narrator of the poem is looking at a photograph of herself at 4 years old on a newly desegregated beach. This picture, taken by her grandmother, is a repeat of an earlier photo of this grandmother on a section of the beach marked “colored only.” In the structure of the poem, grandmother and grandaughter remake each other. At the moment of the photo the grandmother remakes herself and remakes her grandaughter in the image of her former self. In the moment of the poetic narration, Trethewey is remaking her grandmother by highlighting her agency as teacher, recorder, and maker of history.
The poem moves in triplets, each stanza holding together the disparate and non-chronological temporal spaces of the poem. Is it present, past, future? Future, past, present? We are never sure. There is 1970, the time of the second photograph, in which the narrator is a four year old girl, there is the later moment of looking in which the narrator describes this past photograph in the present tense, there is the photograph that this “new” one refers to, taken forty years earlier with the grandmother in the frame, and there is also the future in which we will look and relook at the poem itself. The content of the poem would suggest that time moves progressively forward (i.e. moving from segregated beaches to desegregated beaches = progress). However, the structure of the poem and in particular Trethewey’s use of resonance suggests otherwise. Time is referential here, gauged in relation to a moment that did and did not change history. The latest picture was taken two years after desegregation; the picture that it reflects was taken 40 years before the second picture. Everything about the image, including Trethewey’s choice to mention the picture that comes last, first, provokes the reader to challenge the movement of time. The stillness represented by photographic form itself suggests the persistence of the moment. Although time has moved on, this image is still present in the act of identification that keeps the viewer looking. The setting of the shore is also significant. This beach is not only a former site of segregated leisure, but the gulf was also a major waterway for the importation of slaves into the deep south before and after the slave trade was outlawed. The resonance of this particular site problematizes the relationship between “legal progress” and the persistence of racism.
Indeed more recently, with the 21st century social disaster in the post-Katrina gulf coast, the persistence of inequality has led to the decimation of de facto segregated Black neighborhoods along this same coast. As the image of “each tidal rush” suggests in the poem, American racism shows itself in continual waves, requiring a response that does not assume simple progress.
Finally the women themselves each stand boldly with their hand on their hips. Trethewey emphasizes this visual echo in the structure of the poem. Connecting the first and second stanzas she describes herself “my hands on the flowered hips/ of a bright bikini” and ends the poem with the same couplet rewound, describing her grandmother “her hands on the flowered hips/ of a cotton meal-sack dress”. And time reverberates between them. Each woman represents the arms akimbo embattled positionality of the Black woman always ready, always facing something that makes her need to hold herself up with her own hands.
So what does this history lesson teach us? The time span of a generation (40 years) is present here although Trethewey chooses to leave out the figure of the mother, emphasizing the particular function of photographic reproduction. She displaces the power granted to biological reproduction in our mainstream understandings of heritage and instead grants that power to the act of looking back. In the logic of this poem, the acts that Black women take on by looking boldly at the camera and by looking at each other across time create a rival version of history. This version of history highlights what we face, insists that our agency works backwards and forward across time and demands our accountability, requires our struggle to create a present that addresses the unfinished past.
In her most lauded collection so far, Native Guard, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in poetry, Trethewey starts with a poem designed to destablize the reader’s relationship to time space and self, a poem designed to unsettle them for the journey that she will be enabling through her poetry.
This poem, written before Hurricane Katrina, scares Natasha herself in that it seems to have been prophetic. Natasha explained at her book party in Durham, NC in 2006 that she was thinking about the impossibility of going home metaphorically, theoretically as a consequence of a particular relationship of space and time, now the space that she was referring to has literally met oblivion due to structural negligence and a natural disaster.
The logic of this poem insists that time and space cannot be separated, arguing that as you drive south on highway 49 that each mile marker equals a minute of your life. If time and space are “progressing” in this narrative, it is a morbid progression towards death or in Trethewey’s words “a dead end.” When you get your own copy of Native Guard you will notice that every sentence in this poem is interrupted by a line break, a dashed insert or a stanza shift. This poem takes on a temporality of trauma in which the moving forward of time is experienced in a different rhythm for oppressed people because economic violence and exploitation are repeating in new forms all of the time, similarly to the way in which an individual trauma survivor faces the possibility of events that will cause the buried moment of violence to resurface. The experiences of violence are artificially buried like the mangroves under the manmade sand that Trethewey describes as ”buried terrain of the past.” Thus, the “blank pages of memory” are the burden, “what you must carry,” the persistence of a past so violent that it is repressed both in the history books (to protect the guilty) and in the memories of the oppressed as a coping strategy.
Trethewey’s theories of time and space fundamentally challenge the logic of heritage-based diaspora as we know it. Sometimes modeled as a progressive march of peoples of African descent across the world, ever stronger, ever more free, lifting up our voices and singing to the ultimate climax of an African American president, the Black diaspora here exists within the traumatic repetition of violence, the constant threat of obliteration on the levels of the mind, body, and soul. In this way, the epitome of Black diasporic movement is what was called “the Katrina Diaspora” by national media makers. In the present, especially the Gulf Coast present, with its history of enslavement, its recent ravishment by developers glad to see the descendents of slaves displaced, and the irreversible environmental tragedy of the BP oil spill, movement “forward” through space for those who have been forced to leave is characterized by imperatives that offer no real transformation, but rather are continually traumatic destabilizing uprootings that characterize an impoverished existence. Again, water plays a central role in this tragedy, Trethewey describes the “sky threatening rain” over the ocean that is the ultimate destination of the poem, noting that the traumatic violence of the middle passage is always present in the everyday production of tears of despair that she is accounting for here. Diaspora, this concept that connects us as Black people to each other across space and time is the trauma of falling apart over and over again individually and collectively. The bottom line is that Black residents of the Gulf Coast region, were left to drown and scatter in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and devastatingly disenfranchised in New Orleans, a city which rushed to hold elections before Black residents could return. This is an extreme example of the everyday violence worked on Black people, and especially poor Black people in a government that refuses to be accountable for us again and again. We are each dealing with our own versions of this violence everyday where-ever we are, so of course we want to push this disaster to the back of our minds, hoping that this time we really won’t fall apart.
The Power of Looking: Bellocq’s Ophelia
But in her own words, Natasha Trethewey’s poetic project demands justice, not amnesia, and the subjects she focuses not only deserve our attention, they are also empowered to redefine attention itself, describing the American problem from their own forgotten perspectives. Trethewey’s recuperation of the subjectivity of the Black soldiers who were in fact the first people to lose their lives in the Civil War was celebrated with a Pulitzer, but her earlier recuperation of the perspective of a multi-racial sex worker in the New Orleans red light district of the early 20th century was not. Are we surprised? It is exactly the forms of attention ushered into history by Trethewey’s research and craft in the name of the least honored Americans that we should watch for in this moment of increased criminalization and reduced critical thinking on the national scale.
In the imagined journal entry poem “Blue Book,” Ophelia, a mixed race resident of a Storyville brothel in New Orleans photographed by the famous photographer E. J. Bellocq, who paid sex workers to be his photographic subjects, describes the closing of Bellocq’s shutter around her as “fading into someone I’m not” referring not only to the prospective falseness of the image that Bellocq will appropriate, but also revealing an ambivalence for the manner in which the boundaries between subject, narrator, author, and reader become purposefully unstable in Trethewey’s project. In “April 1911” an imagined letter poem, Ophelia frames her communication with “Constance,” her childhood teacher, in her desire for freedom from memory, for the possibility of inhabiting the white space of forgetting, which in this case may be the page. But the function of the page for Trethewey is built around justice, not amnesia. So what could convince Ophelia to fill these blank pages, to record these memories, to resist amnesia? What could convince any of us to take on all the deep, painful issues of this so-called democracy, rife with the blood of the oppressed and the continued sacrificial norms of capitalism? In this text, the miracle that justifies persistent and dangerous engagement with the energy of memory in the confrontation of the present is the possibility of re-membering a loved one, or a multitude of loved ones and simultaneously inhabiting the freedom to fall apart.
Ophelia and her former schoolteacher remake and educate each other, and co-produce an image of Ophelia to pass on to Ophelia’s mother. By describing her experience as a model to the schoolteacher, Ophelia appropriates these representations of herself and replaces the agency of the photographer’s gaze, which Trethewey provocatively conflated with the agency of looking and naming by the “white father,” within energy of this long-distance homosocial bond. In “December 1911” Ophelia’s written proposal or request to take a picture of her schoolteacher reframes photography as her capacity to love a woman, an engagement in which the shutter of the camera becomes the opening and closing valves of the heart or the body in its possibilities of opening. It is the energy of this same reciprocally educational relationship that allows Ophelia to lose herself while “setting the globe in motion” in “January 1912” the poem that follows. (You really should be ordering Bellocq’s Ophelia right now). In this way, looking opens up the bodies of the women involved, implicating them in each other, provoking accountability and revealing the centrality of Ophelia’s positionality to a global economy that depends on the access to and theft of reproductive labor power, especially from women of color.
Though the existence of Natasha Trethewey’s poetic body of work and her emergence on the national scale now not only as an author but as an authority are causes for celebration, celebration is not the ethical response provoked by her texts. Instead, especially in the case of Bellocq’s Ophelia, the reader (this reader) is left with the grave losses caused by the objectification of racialized women and the imperative to act on the suspenseful relationship between potential and action that characterizes the introductory (being poised to speak) and concluding (stepping out into her life) poems of the set.
Trethewey as artist reproduces and names Ophelia while allowing the sight of her to remake her own subjectivity. Trethewey and Ophelia then produce a narrator whom the reader cannot consume without being remade, leading indeed to the shared production of a refigured world in which renewed possibilities for accountabiilty to the structurally and economically embattled positions of women of color are born.
So we travel across time to each other, through space, over cybernetic waves and more, for healing, for justice, for radical reclamation, and to remember what our experiences and losses mean as demands, possibilities, and lessons for what life could mean in these dubiously united states.
Look out for part 2 of this series next Wednesday on Creating the Archive You Need in Natasha Trethewey’s work.