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Our Slaves: Caring for Masters, Deforming Mastery (Part 1 of 2)


This post is a continuation of the conversation I started last week with the same title. There’s so much that can be written on both Natasha Trethewey’s “Native Guard” and Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Cape Coast Castle.” I am just venturing in a toe in a mighty deep pool. Please, after reading this blog, won’t you come wade with me.


In “Native Guard,” a crown of sonnets in Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard, Trethewey imagines a former black slave who writes letters for white, captured soldiers during the Civil War. Trethewey’s “Native Guard” owes as much to the archive of history as much as it does to her own imagination. The sonnet sequence comes together at the intersection of art and history, speculation and truth, linguistics and aesthetics. Trethewey pulls this poem from historical record in the making; however, she also departs from the historical record. There was a cadre of black soldiers from Louisiana known as the Native Guard that watched over southern, white POWs during the Civil War. However, Trethewey does some historical invention in the use of the sonnet form and in rendering the text a palimpsest. Trethewey’s former slave, who was born in the Parish of Ascension near harvest time, writes his series of poems over a slave master’s journal, literally obscuring the slave master’s text. However, Trethewey does not provide the master’s words beneath the former slave’s words. What we, as the reader, encounter is only the blank verse sonnets.

Trethewey creates this encounter with a faux-palimpsest sonnet sequence as a means of subverting hierarchy of humanity in the ante- and post-bellum South, surveillance, and the linguistic-making and un-making of the black body. In the second sonnet in the sequence, the former-slave-prisoner-guard-soldier articulates the hybridization, liminality, and the neither-here-nor-there nature of the text. He declares:

….We take those things we need
from the Confederates abandoned homes:
salt, sugar, even this journal, near full
with someone else’s words, overlapped now,
crosshatched beneath mine. On every page,
his story intersecting with my own.

The taking of “salt,” “sugar,” and “this journal” can be read as metapoesis. Quite simply the salt, sugar, and journal taken from the Confederate homes can be understood as the confiscation of technologies, goods, or commodities, and through this occupying, commandeering, or, as the forefathers of this great nation would have called it, “privateering” there is a re-articulation of these goods, of these technologies, goods, commodities towards the subverting of their original purpose. I might not have said that simply. Well, think Audre Lorde’s question on the nature of political resistance: we can tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools? This question is rather apropos in the context of the narrative situation of Trethewey’s sonnet sequence. Literally, these former slaves-cum-soldiers are re-allocating their master’s resources. Not only are they re-iterating, but they are re-iterating with difference. Quite simply, the salt, sugar, and the journal—all of these the master’s tools—were never intended to be used, wielded, understood, articulate by slave hands.

In fact, there is a reversal, a switcheroo. Something quite surreal has occurred in Trethewey’s poem—the slave has become the master and the master has become of the slave. Trethewey’s sonnet sequence challenges the stability of panopticon. Those that were surveilled now do the surveilling. Through the re-articulation of the tools of power—salt and sugar (foodstuffs), the journal (language, the linguistic signs and signifiers)—Trethewey articulates the revolution and instability of authority. However, Trethewey’s articulation of revolution is not one of anarchy. She offers us a way to think through Lorde’s famous question concerning tearing down the master’s house with the master’s tools. Trethewey’s revolution does not require a complete eradication of the master’s house. In fact, Trethewey’s use of the sonnet might be a heuristic, metaphor and evidence of her relationship to tradition and its necessity. It’s as though she’s arguing for the re-articulation of space (i.e. the poem, the panopticon) and the politics of encounter in these spaces. To use my grandmother’s koan, Trethewey doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, there is something in these spaces. As the prison guard states at the end of the second sonnet, there is a cross-hatching and overlapping between his story that he’s writing and the master’s. Their stories are inextricably linked, and there is no way to excise or exorcise one from the other.

Trethewey puts this former captive slave body to work as a means of articulating an erotics of care that does not reify or re-articulate the power dynamics between the captive and the captor. I must provide you with two sonnet from the sequence so that we (you, dear reader and I) might be on the same page (no pun intended). Bear with me.


February 1863

We know it is our duty now to keep
white men as prisoners—rebel soldiers;
would-be masters. We’re all bondsmen here, each
to the other. Freedom has gotten them
captivity. For us, a conscription
we have chosen –jailors to those who still
would have us slaves. They are cautious, dreading
the sight of us. Some neither read nor write,
are laid too low and have a few words to send
but those I give them. Still, they are weary
of a negro writing, taking down letters.
X binds them to the page—a mute symbol
like the cross on a grave. I suspect they fear
I’ll listen, put something else down in ink.


March 1863

I listen, put down in ink what I know
they labor to say between silences
too big for words: worry for beloveds—
My Dearest, how are you getting along—
what has become of their small plots of land—
did you harvest enough food to put by?
They long for the comfort of former lives—
I see you as you were, waving goodbye.
Some send photographs—a likeness in case
the body can’t return. Others dictate
harsh facts of this war: The hot air carries
the stench of limbs, rotten in the bone pit.
Flies swarm—a black cloud. We hunger, grow weak.
When men die, we eat their share of hardtack.


These two sonnets give us so much, and I will not be able to discuss it all in this blog post. However, I do want to think through how Trethewey puts this former captive black body to work, and I would like to think through the nature of suspicion. While Trethewey gives the prison guard a body, a corporeality, she does not do it as a means of soliciting or satiating on our readerly enjoyment. In fact, what Trethewey is careful to do is to put a black body in front of you that is one that quite cerebral. This “bondsman” articulates Douglass famous koan that if you put a chain around my neck, then it must be attached to a manacle at your wrist. Quite simply, in order to enslave another, one must enslave oneself. When Trethewey’s bondsman argues “Freedom has gotten them / captivity,” this bondsman revels in and enjoys the hyperbole and the irony of the reversal—the slave becoming master and the master becoming the slave.

However, what I find most intriguing about this sonnet is the suspicion of writing, the suspicion of black writing in particular. What the southern, white soldiers fear is that this bondsman will not articulate their desires and fears. They, the white prisoners of war, fear erasure and re-inscription, a subversion of their agency. What they fear is the way in which captivity eradicates and obscures subjectivity. Again, I read the fear of this obscuring of subjectivity metapoetically. Is this the fear of black writing—that it obscures white subjectivity? What does it mean for a black writer to be the master of a tradition? Does black mastery necessarily obscure white traditions of mastery? Is the relationship between black writers to white, literary traditions always one of suspicion?

Trethewey’s former slave answers these above questions; however, he answers them via insinuation and making absence present. Through the inexplicable, silences, Trethewey’s former slave speaks for others. Trethewy writes in the first two lines of the sonnet “I listen, put down in ink what I know / they labor to say between silences / too big for words.” From their darknesses, their lacks, he articulates their queries. Another way to frame this is to think about this black, prison guard writing letters for white, POWs is as a type of care. This prison guard ushers forth the voice of the prisoner from the depths of his captivity, offering him a subjectivity, dare I say a voice, that these former slaves-cum-prison guards were never offered. It’s irony. It’s the irony of tradition in another’s hands. Again, reading Trethewey’s slave allegorically, we see that what he offers the literary tradition is more noise, more sounds, a further articulation of the poetic tradition. I fear I’m not being clear. Let’s try this again. Trethewey’s slave speaks from absence, speaks from the frustrated desires of white POWs. He, like Trethewey, speculate from darkness. Through the speculation, the former captive body via Trethewey’s pen speaks from a darkened and unexplored corner of the tradition; thus, enlarging, expanding, and challenging what is the tradition and what the literary tradition can encounter and encompass.

I already can hear the critique of this argument above: “in reading this moment allegorically, isn’t Trethwey’s prison-guard-writer merely articulating the thoughts of white men? So, Roger, are you arguing that black folk’s contribution to the American literary tradition is merely filling in the absences that white people have sketched out?” And my answer would be no. And yes. As Trethewey’s prison guard articulated earlier, our words, black folks writing, is always “overlapped” and “crosshatched” with another. In fact, that’s artistic and literary production par excellence. Books are always made from other books. Poems are always made with the yarn, thread, mistakes, and metaphors of other poems. This is the nature of making. So yes, black writing is always in conversation with white writing. Black writing is always articulating absence. And why not wallow in that abjection? But what Trethewey’s sonnet sequence also points to is that white writing does the same. White articulations of desire are as dependent upon black writers as these white POWs under the watchful eye of these black guards. We are often erotically caring for the other even as we seek to articulate a subjectivity. However, what Trethewey offers us in this case of these black soldiers caring for white soldiers is a way of thinking about the American literary tradition that I think beckons back to poets like Phillis Wheatley and calls forward to poets that have yet to be born.

The future of American letters require caring for the former masters while deforming their mastery, obscuring and transforming their prosaic technologies that record the banality of violence (the master’s journal) into verse that subverts the very violence.

Originally Published: May 1st, 2013

Roger Reeves's poems have appeared in journals such as PoetryPloughshares, American Poetry ReviewBoston Review, and Tin House, among others. Kim Addonizio selected “Kletic of Walt Whitman” for the Best New Poets 2009 anthology. He was awarded a 2013 NEA Fellowship, Ruth Lilly Fellowship by the Poetry Foundation in 2008, two Bread Loaf Scholarships, an Alberta H....