Essay

Built to Last

Natasha Trethewey’s new career-spanning collection reckons with race and gender in American history.

Monument (2018), the new collection by former US poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize–winner Natasha Trethewey, arrives at a time of great national upheaval. Over the past few years, statues of Confederate heroes have been called out as symbols of white supremacy and torn down. Colleges with historical investments in slavery have renamed and rededicated campus buildings and entire academic institutions. New memorials have been erected to commemorate long-buried but newly recognized histories of men and women who burned and bled under the whip of white supremacy. Trethewey’s book—her first retrospective collection—is a literary edifice that painstakingly, heartbreakingly, and victoriously memorializes those deemed unworthy of citation in academic syllabi or among the nation’s public statuary. It’s a marker in America’s conversation on race and gender. More intimately, it’s a Mississippi-soaked, multivoiced remembrance of Trethewey’s departed parents.

Deeply entrenched in the author’s personal experience and in America’s uniquely violent sagas of race and gender, Monument’s nearly 200 pages are a formidable but lithe forge of form and free verse. Like any master architect, Trethewey digs deep in order to reach high. Drawing from her previous collections—Domestic Work (2000), Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), Native Guard (2006), Thrall (2012), and Congregation (2014)—Monument also contains new poems that address the poet’s tentative and turbulent relationship with her white father, Eric Trethewey, himself a renowned poet of the South. These poems trouble the waters of patriarchy and privilege, and worry the line between light, dark, and shades in between. Trethewey’s portraits of paternal interactions are fraught but tender, tempered by tragedy yet weathered by wary love.

The focus, however, is decidedly matrilineal. Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Ann Trethewey, was murdered by the poet’s stepfather when the poet was 19. She inhabits these pages, contextualizing historical figures and remaining in spectral dialogue with her daughter. The book’s title poem, “Monument,” reflects on the absence of Trethewey’s mother and the testament that even the smallest creatures provide:

Today the ants are busy
             beside my front steps, weaving
in and out of the hill they’re building.
             I watch them emerge and—

like everything I’ve forgotten—disappear
             into the subterranean—a world
made by displacement.

In her mother’s metaphorical displacement/disinterment, Trethewey also rediscovers buried histories of the Old and New South, miscegenation laws, caste and color regimes, and histories heretofore neglected. While the collection spans work over an 18-year period, it stays in earnest conversation with today’s fervent headlines.

Before taking readers through her works chronologically, Trethewey instructs them on her mission with “Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath,” an apt title for those shaken by the political and social reckonings of the day:

Do not hang your head or clench your fists
when even your friend, after hearing the story,
says: My mother would never put up with that.

Fight the urge to rattle off statistics: that,
more often, a woman who chooses to leave
is then murdered.

The poem’s vulnerability is deeply personal, widely historical, and prescient to ongoing discussions of sexual harassment and the destructive wake of male violence. The frank turn of the poem follows, echoing sentiments and directives often proffered to women and students of color in creative writing classes. Here, Trethewey provides succor to those alienated from their own stories, and lets them know they are not alone.

[…] Remember you were told
by your famous professor, that you should

write about something else, unburden
yourself of the death of your mother and
just pour your heart out in the poems.

But the poem begs to ask: What if what pours from one’s heart is not only the loss of one’s mother but also the historical conditions that brought her and Trethewey here? What if the author finds herself born a living crime of miscegenation in the Year of Our Lord 1966, in her own home state of Mississippi, and is on a journey to figure out what that means in the 21st century? What if the poet finds it impossible to ignore the history of her state, her Southland, her country—a history that has been scrupulously ignored and ablated for so many generations and in nearly every aspect of literature and common life?

In that case, the poem tells readers to reach outside of their own birthplace to learn from … a Korean poet in Seoul:

that one does not bury the mother’s body
in the ground but in the chest, or—like you—

you carry her corpse on your back.

We progress through Monument laden with a body of memory that belongs to both the mother and her extended kin. Trethewey summons her fellow unsung denizens of the South, both living and dead, as if they’ve been insistently waiting for this literary iteration, liberation, and canonization. As the poet declares in a 2004 Callaloo interview:

I want to create a public record of people who are often excluded from the public record. I want to inscribe their stories into the larger American story. I want readers who might be unfamiliar with these people, their lives, and their particular circumstances to begin to know something about them, to see in the people that I write about some measure of them, and to, I think, enlarge the community of humanity. So often, there are people who are not included or whose stories are seen as less important, and so, I’d like for readers to know they exist.

Monument is the literary activism of the archivist, the social justice work of the painstaking historian-turned-poet. A critical component of Trethewey’s technique is her use of ekphrasis. Monument guides readers through a virtual portrait gallery of witness. History is captured over and over again in images from great artists’ formal paintings to the small drylongso moments of casual subjects and amateur photographers.

A poignant example of the contrast between formal and casual portraiture occurs in the sonnet “Family Portrait,” from Domestic Work. While preparing for the photographer to appear at the family home, a young Trethewey is told not to stare at what the picture-taker is missing: his lower legs. When he finally arrives to take what will be Trethewey’s only picture with both her mother and her father, the reader’s attention is riveted not on the photo but on the photographer’s missing legs, thus foreshadowing Trethewey’s own impending loss: “I watch him bother / the space for knees, shins, scratching air / as—years later—I’d itch for what’s not there.”

Portraiture is a theme developed throughout Domestic, but the prevailing arc of this section follows the life of Trethewey’s maternal grandmother, Loretta Dixon Turnbough, who constantly evolves to meet new challenges in her life. Framed with an epigraph from W.E.B. Du Bois—“I shirk not. I long for work. I pant for a life full of striving.”—Trethewey follows her matriarch’s laborious journey through the Delta. Skillfully rendered in the title poem of the section, “Domestic Work, 1937,” Turnbough comes to us with the confidence of one determined to move beyond the confines of her current condition:

All week she’s cleaned
someone else’s house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper-
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she’d pull
the lid to—that look saying

Let’s make a change, girl.

And change is indeed imminent. We follow Turnbough’s progress from Depression-era housekeeper to New Orleans beautician, from Gulfport factory worker to self-employment as a seamstress. Metaphorically, readers also witness the spirit of a poet, Trethewey, whose inheritance gives her the gumption to go beyond maintaining the canon in someone else’s house to working in her own home and stitching together her own self-sufficient legacy. These poems establish the matrilineal landscape of Monument.

The speaker’s journey toward self-realization is echoed in the poems from Bellocq’s Ophelia. The archive of E.J. Bellocq, the New Orleans photographer who captured provocative images of Storyville sex workers, forms the backdrop to the story of a fictional Ophelia, a young, mixed-race woman who leaves her home in search of opportunity. She navigates segregated brothels in the early years of the 20th century, and eventually finds herself in the lens of the aforementioned portraitist.

Ophelia, whose name translates from the Greek to “Help,” and whose Shakespearean namesake was driven to suicide, was named by her white father (much like Trethewey was named by hers). We encounter him in the first of a sonnet chain titled “Naming”:

My own name was a chant
over the washboard, a song to guide me
into sleep. Once, my mother pushed me toward
a white man in our front room. Your father,
she whispered. He’s the one that named you, girl.

Trethewey’s sonnets adroitly illustrate Ophelia’s movement from prone subject to active narrator of her own image. In keeping with an ekphrastic theme, these sonnets focus not on the repetition of words between sonnets, but on the image at the end of one poem serving as a bridge to the beginning of the next. In transitioning from “Father” to “Bellocq,” poems sequenced consecutively in the book, Trethewey deftly moves from one male image to another, with the father—“I pass in the streets, fear the day a man / enters my room both customer and father”supplanted by the imagemaker Bellocq: “There comes a quiet man now to my room— / Papá Bellocq, his camera on his back.”

Although this transition speaks to the pervasive flow of patriarchy, Ophelia becomes her own help by the end of this sequence. She masters the lens of the master photographer who is known to deface any image that doesn’t meet his approval. She sees for herself what is beyond the comprehension of her instructor, and she finally defines her own images, drawing herself into focus with her own “(Self) Portrait.” Here she looks back at herself to find her own image in remembrance of her mother.

The first time I tried this shot
I thought of my mother shrinking against
the horizon—so distracted, I looked into
a capped lens, saw only my own clear eye.

This clarity of vision allows Trethewey to concentrate on historical subjects in subsequent sections of Monument that widen the scope from her point of origin while still allowing her to come home to family.

In Native Guard, Trethewey follows the history of Black Union troops who fought against the Confederates in the Civil War. Once again, she uses the sonnet form to tell the story. This time readers witness a Black soldier gifted with literacy who transforms the narrative handed down to him by writing over the text of a Rebel soldier’s discarded journal. The solider creates his own palimpsest. He rewrites a forlorn and defeated history, finding his own triumphant image in “December 1862” where he writes “on every page, / his story intersecting with my own.”

Meanwhile, illiterate captive Rebs marvel and begrudgingly avail themselves of his ability to take dictation for their own letters home. Trethewey’s Native Guardsman is empowered to reinterpret Southern histories, with white captives subject to the interpretations of this former slave.

Trethewey continues to contextualize the 19th century through the lens of 20th and 21st century events. “Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi” details the Delta’s capacity for natural disaster coupled with the American capacity for racial animus from the great flood of 1927 to Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, it’s hard to tell which century we are in when we are called to witness:

[…] Above them 
the National Guard hunkers 
on the levee, rifles tight in their fists,
blocking the path to high ground.
One group of black refugees,

the caption tells us, was ordered
to sing their passage onto land,
like a chorus of prayer—their tongues
the tongues of dark bells.

And with the penultimate section, “Congregation,” Trethewey returns to the present-day aftermath of Katrina, and to the Gulf Coast residents who first formed her consciousness. This, too, is a love letter to those she can never really leave behind. In “Watcher,” she witnesses her brother’s vigil for the dead: “my brother trained his eyes to bear / the sharp erasure of sand and glass, prayed / there’d be nothing more to see.” In “Believer,” she introduces her neighbor, who continues to tithe out of faith. In “Benediction,” she pauses for her brother’s release from prison. And in “Liturgy to the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” she acknowledges that she prays but is honest about her poems and their mission:

This cannot rebuild the Coast; it is an indictment, a complaint,
my logos—argument and discourse—with the Coast.

This is my nostos—my pilgrimage to the Coast, my memory, my reckoning—

native daughter: I am the Gulf Coast.

Thrall, however, takes readers much further afield with its ekphrastic rumination on the “Miracle of the Black Leg.” This mid-14th century European myth, depicted in hundreds of drawings and paintings, calls for transplantation of the black leg of a deceased moor onto the body of a white recipient whose own leg is infected. Trethewey’s poems are illuminated with cogent, surgical analysis of race and caste vividly drawn from these paintings:

One man always
low, in a grave or on the ground, the other
up high, closer to heaven; one man always diseased,
the other a body in service, plundered.

The section also ruminates on the 18th century casta paintings of Juan Rodríguez Juárez, which meticulously describe characteristics according to heritage. Trethewey’s “Taxonomy” series imagines the intimate lives of Juárez’s subjects, from mestizo to mulato to castiza. These raw, malignant terms are mostly buried just beneath the surface of today’s racial politics, but they inform the poet’s mission to expose and understand the roots of America’s toxic cultural and political predicament.

Finally, Thrall brings these contradictions of race into a personal context. Poems such as “Enlightenment” cut a sharp image of Trethewey’s relationship with her father, all of it rendered through the prism of history. In this case, a portrait of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello provides the ekphrastic lens:

            The first time I saw the painting, I listened
as my father explained the contradictions:

how Jefferson hated slavery, though— out
         of necessity, my father said — had to own
slaves; that his moral philosophy meant

he could not have fathered those children:
         would have been impossible, my father said.
For years we debated the distance between

word and deed.

Trethewey’s keen meditations on race continue in the book’s final section, “Articulation,” which contains new poems that address both her family legacy and recent political dramas. Her mother’s ghost haunts the prosaic “Letter to Inmate #271847, Convicted of Murder, 1985.” Trethewey addresses the murderer who took her mother’s life and three decades later is preparing for parole.

[…] when I thought of hiding, I could not help but think of
you. What does it mean to be safe in the world? Everywhere I go she is
with me—my long-dead mother. Is there nowhere I might go and not
find you there, too?

 This section considers the public and private art that shape American psyches, with ekphrastic meditations that range from Jefferson to Vermeer to the cinematic. “Reach” offers a contemplative moment out fishing with her father, revising a history in which Trethewey’s mother was never lost:

[…] He is Orpheus
trying to bring her back with the music
of his words, lines of a poem drifting now
into my dream.

The collection finally comes full circle to take up the raw, difficult questions of the last section’s title poem, “Articulation” (after Miguel Cabrera’s Portrait of Saint Gertrude, 1763). Trethewey turns readers away from paintings, statuary, portraits, and busts toward the more meaningful monuments of flesh, bone, and memory.

How, then, could I not answer her life
with mine, she who saved me with hers?

And how could I not, bathed in the light
of her wound, find my calling there?

Trethewey has built a distinguished legacy as the first Black poet to win a Pulitzer in the 21st century, as well as the first Black poet laureate of this century appointed under the first Black president. After reading this volume, it’s clear why her work is monumental—it stands in stark and corrective relief against a long tradition of white male writers of the Southland, while also inviting and amplifying colored voices from that very region. She steps into this historical context with poems committed to the bone in their resolve to rewrite, deepen, and expand the American narrative beyond its conventional borders. This book is a must-read for people interested in where America has been, where it’s headed, and how to traverse the crossroads of the country’s literature while also perhaps saving their soul at the beginning of this turbulent century.

Originally Published: November 26th, 2018

Born in Detroit, poet Tyehimba Jess earned his BA from the University of Chicago and his MFA from New York University. He is the author of leadbelly (2005) and Olio (2016), winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Jess is the rare poet who bridges slam and academic poetry. His first collection, leadbelly...