Follow Harriet on Twitter
In a poem “Pastoral”, Natasha Trethewey reminds me of a conversation I have had every time I spend a few hours in the Northern states:
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?
The conversation begins usually with the question, “So do you like it in North…”
Usually I interrupt, “South, South Carolina…”
“Yes, South Carolina, Do you like it there?”
“It is fine,” I say.
“How long have you been there?”
“And you like it, eh? It is a beautiful place, I hear. The weather…”
“Ah, the weather. Well, I would be quite miserable if I didn’t like it wouldn’t I?” I laugh. We laugh. The unstated suggestion is that we must now start talking about race in the South or the racism of South Carolina, and somehow, I am suppose to arrive at the conclusive view that I hate the South. That I am barely surviving there.
In the final poem of her collection Native Guard Trethewey is unabashed about her own feelings of ambivalence about the South, but she is also talking about the meaning of home and she is talking about her mother and her father and what it means to me a mixed raced Mississippi woman who is still in search for home and who is still able to call home the place of such profound atrocities. The poem, “South” after a series of poems about the Confederacy, the present, the palpable taste of history in Mississippi, and the travesty carried out against the “Native Guard”—a body of black soldiers who fought for the Union forces and who, according to Trethewey’s detailed notes from her research, were treated horrendously by their “fellow” white soldiers and officers. “South” ends with elegiac authority:
Where the roads, buildings, and monuments
are named to honor the Confederacy,
where that old flag still hangs, 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.
This is not a wholehearted embrace of home, not a defense of the complexities of the south and the possibility of beauty in the South, but it is a statement that is irrefutable—South, even for Trethewey, is home.
Native Guard is a necessary book. Tretehwey’s formal skills are on display, and her work has that wonderfully restrain passion that is most beautifully revealed when it is clear that she is exploring themes that demand a delicate balance of sentiment tough-mindedness.
Trethewey’s poems about her mother’s death are painful journeys into memory and into the presence,. These are touching elegies that still managed to remind us that despite her quest for connection, she is still struggling with that strangely necessary separation from those we love or long to love. The collection is full of fairly loosely formed sonnets (slant rhymed, ten-syllable pieces) that move from the pattern of linked verses to some stand alone pieces. In the poem “What is Evidence” the almost inexplicable final phrase of the preceding poem “Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971” is explained, Here is the final stanza of the poem:
why on the back has someone made a list
of our names, the date, the event: nothing
of what’s inside—mother, stepfather’s fist?
And here is what may well become one of the most notorious and often quoted poems in the collection:
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. Not
the teeth she wore in place of her own, or
the official document—its seal
and smeared signature—fading already,
the edges wearing. Not the tiny marker
with its dates, her name, abstract as history.
Only the landscape of her body—splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal—her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.
Trethewey’s achievement is her ability to take such seemingly disparate themes as the dissolution of her parents marriage, her own biography as a Mississippi native, the history of blacks in the Civil War, and the death of her mother, and weave them into a complex collection that manages to sustain an emotional coherence. The work has a curious resonance today, it being a collection of poems that bravely engage with themes of war, of death in war and of a society trying to work out is own history. Perhaps it is not a nation’s preoccupation, but the preoccupation of a state. So this is not a love song to Mississippi, but a troubled look at the idea of home which is both powerful and disturbingly unsettling.
Trethewey’s book brings to mind the most recent work of her colleague Kevin Young—his collection For the Confederate Dead. These are two powerhouse writers with awards and prizes to their credit. They both seem intent on looking bold-facedly at the South and the position of blacks in the South in ways that are direct, daring and provocative. And they are both doing this while teaching at Emory University in Atlanta. Even as I worry that the narratives of the South presented here will feed into a largely unsophisticated perception of the South that many “northern folk” might have, I also realize that these stories have to be told. We will see how this works out, but I certainly rejoice in the success of the book.
My impression is that Trethewey has come home more clearly than she might want to suggest in this work, but this particular homecoming demands a great deal from Southern poets, Southern black poets who hope to continue to reveal the complexity of what it means to be southern in the twenty-first century.
You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.
(from “Theories of Time and Space.”