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"I shirk not": domestic labor, sex work, and warfare in the poetry of Natasha Trethewey.

BORN IN GULFPORT, MISSISSIPPI, IN 1966, NATASHA TRETHEWEY HAS published three major collections since 2000. Winner of the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African American poet, Domestic Work (2000) arrived with cover art by Romare Bearden and cover blurbs by Toi Derricotte, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Rita Dove. Reminiscent of Emerson's salute to the newcomer Walt Whitman on the publication of his first book, Dove--a former US poet laureate--introduces Trethewey in ringingly prophetic terms: "Here is a young poet in full possession of her craft, ready to testify. To which I say: Can we get an 'Amen?' And: Let these voices be heard" (Domestic Work back cover). The men and women who speak in Trethewey's first volume, and in the two that followed, come from generations of the South's black working class. Honoring their lives, Domestic Work, Bellocq's Ophelia (2002), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard (2006) place a high value on their humble labors. In these poems, even the most grueling and tedious occupations can become powerful vehicles of insight and self-expression. (2)

The poet takes her cue from W. E. B. Du Bois, whose The Souls of Black Folk (1903) provides an epigraph for the "Domestic Work" sequence in her first collection: "I shirk not. I long for work. I pant for a life full of striving" (11). Trethewey's early poems are filled with as many sorts of laborers as Whitman's Leaves of Grass: seamstresses, photographers, laundrywomen, maids, cashiers, beauticians, elevator operators, boxers, machinists at a drapery factory, 1930s Hollywood starlets, Mississippi dockworkers, and even an insurance collector for the Everlast Interment Company. Derricotte says that Trethewey "puts women's work, and in particular, black women's work, the hard unpretty background music of our survival, in its proper perspective.... this is a revolutionary book that cuts right through to the deepest places in the soul" (DW back cover). Women do strive mightily in Domestic Work, but men also contribute their sweat and souls to Trethewey's labor force. Much of the work splits along traditional gender lines: black women scrub white women's floors, while black men "heave crates of bananas and spiders" on the Gulfport docks ("At the Owl Club," DW 4).

In fact, Trethewey's second and third books exaggerate the division of labor, focusing on prostitutes in Bellocq's Ophelia and on soldiers in the title segment of Native Guard. While the nature of their work seems to underscore female and male stereotypes, the laborers themselves are less conventional since Trethewey's early twentieth-century sex workers and her Civil War soldiers are African American. White prostitutes and white enlisted men of those eras became familiar and sympathetic figures in the fiction of Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser. Trethewey says she writes about racially marginalized people "and the tensions inherent in public history and / or cultural memory versus private memory and / or family history" because this is "the stuff that often gets little attention or is left out of the historical record" ("Interchange" 580).

At a well-appointed brothel in New Orleans and a stone fort off Mississippi's Gulf Coast, Trethewey's characters work with pride in professions that readers have seldom viewed from the perspective of women and men of color. The light-skinned Ophelia tells a friend back home: "I alone / have made this choice.... Now / my labor is my own" ("January 1911," BO 15). She adds that she has earned enough money at Countess P--'s house to buy her mother new teeth and a new well. Guarding a Union prison on Ship Island, an African American soldier discovers a different sort of reward for his industry: "a bond in labor / I had not known" ("January 1863," NG 26). Ophelia and the guardsman acknowledge the hazards and humiliations of their work, yet both feel liberated from earlier restraints: her days in Mississippi's cotton fields and his life as an enslaved manservant in Louisiana. Their new occupations may be as "unpretty," in Derricotte's word, as the labors of Domestic Work; but Trethewey's characters rarely shrink from a task. Facing their work in all three volumes, they face--and discover--themselves.

Industrious Hands in Domestic Work

Trethewey told Callaloo editor Charles Henry Rowell that, in describing her maternal grandmother's jobs--from housework and sewing to factory labor--in several Domestic Work poems, she suggests the "idea of becoming, of constantly making one's self, of striving to move to the next thing, as opposed to a kind of stagnant being" (1024-25). The relationship she draws here between work and "becoming" is so central to all three of her books that her comments bear quoting at length. In Domestic Work, says Trethewey, her grandmother is
 constantly thinking, she's constantly moving, recreating and
 remaking herself, and learning the self also. Then I found that
 work, the idea of work, is a wonderful way to suggest that kind of
 becoming because of the ways in which work says something about who
 we are, but also, who we might become, the things that we aspire
 to. And I also thought of that title poem and then that section, as
 moving the whole collection toward an idea of making my own self as
 poet, so that the idea of becoming is reflected in the act of
 inscribing this history into the American literary canon, and into
 American cultural memory, into public memory. That was also the
 gesture of the poet-in-process, of that kind of making and
 becoming. (1025)

Trethewey's identification with her grandmother as a fellow-laborer underscores the multiplicity of meanings in the title Domestic Work, a phrase that extends to family relationships and also to the impact of Trethewey's mixed-race heritage on her creative work.

In viewing physical labor as a positive means to "remaking" and "learning the self," Trethewey might appear to romanticize occupations that could easily be portrayed as mechanical and demeaning, even destructive. When the interviewer Jill Petty asked, "Wouldn't you call your poems nostalgic?," she admitted to being "a tremendously nostalgic person" who loves artifacts, including her grandmother's old hot combs, which Trethewey keeps in her house. Yet she says she agrees with the poet Richard Hugo "that if you're not risking sentimentality then you're not really writing. So I think that I risk it every single time I go into a poem. I hope that I overcome it, but I definitely risk that" ("Interview" 366).

"Hot Combs," a sonnet variation in Domestic Work, displays this strategy well, evenly balancing pleasure with pain as Trethewey depicts loveliness emerging from mundane labor. At the start of the poem, a "greasy" and "pungent" old hair appliance in a junk shop evokes the speaker's memories of her mother--wrist slender, neck curved--warming combs at the stove for her beautification ritual. Shining verbs are undercut by harsher ones as Trethewey recalls that the heat of the kitchen
 made her glow that morning I watched her
 wincing, the hot comb singeing her brow,
 sweat glistening above her lips,
 her face made strangely beautiful
 as only suffering can do. (DW 29)

At least a generation older than Trethewey's mother, the clients in the poem "Naola Beauty Academy, New Orleans, 1945" likewise view kinky, coiled, and wiry hair as unattractive; the stylist-narrator praises the "girls" in her shop who "put a press on your head / last two weeks. No naps" (DW 20). Ida, for example, has a "natural touch" ("Don't burn nobody"); and Lee, a former seamstress with steady fingers, "can fix some bad hair" (DW 20). Reviewing Domestic Work in Prairie Schooner, Rafael Campo describes the hot comb as "a kind of instrument of torture, a device fashioned by human hands made to serve a racist ideal of beauty, its blackness and grease seemingly emblematic of what it was employed so painfully to 'correct'" (182). (3) Yet Campo also remarks that the woman's "own genuine beauty" prevails in "Hot Combs," as she "transcends the disgrace" of the instrument "in her so very human suffering" (182).

The metamorphosis of her mother's hair does suggest the problematic nature of work in Trethewey's poetry--especially work in an oppressive society; nevertheless, "Hot Combs" is also one of Trethewey's most obvious depictions of the transformative power of the work of the hands. (4) And, in this poem, the writer struggles to turn painful material into beautiful lines; sweating along with her mother, she retrieves a very personal past through an anonymous junk-store find. Domestic work, says Trethewey, includes "the everyday work that we do as human beings to live with or without people that we've lost, the work of memory and forgetting, and of self-discovery--not simply the work of earning a living and managing our households, but that larger, daily, domestic work that all of us do" ("Inscriptive" 1026-27). In poems like "Hot Combs," "Cameo," and "Early Evening, Frankfort, Kentucky," Trethewey labors to recover her most painful loss: "My mother, who will not reach / forty-one" ("Early Evening," DW 27). (5)

When the poet monthly digs her fingers into the hair of an older relative in the poem "Give and Take," greasing the woman's scalp, plaiting her strands "for ease" (DW 50), she is again digging into her complex heritage. The woman is not named in the poem, but Trethewey's interview with Jill Petty confirms that this is her Aunt Sugar, whom she calls her storytelling "muse" (367). A former schoolteacher who moved to Chicago and became a medical technician, Aunt Sugar returned to Gulfport to live next door to Trethewey's grandmother. Even though the grandmother's working career was much more humble, the two eiders are sometimes indistinguishable in the Domestic Work poems. "There's just an old woman who is there," says Trethewey ("Interview" 366). But it is explicitly Aunt Sugar who guides the young Natasha in the leisurely work of fishing in "Flounder," a coming-of-age poem framed by references to color. Sugar speaks at the start, warning the light-skinned child to wear a hat in the hot sun: "You 'bout as white as your dad, / and you gone stay like that" (DW 35). After instructing the girl in baiting the hook and holding the pole, the aunt gets the first bite and struggles with a flounder: "you can tell/ 'cause one of its sides is black. / The other side is white," she says (DW 35-36). In the final lines, the mixed-race child watches the landed fish "flip-flop, / switch sides with every jump" (DW 36)--a deathly thumping that anticipates the girl's desperate temptation to pass as white in "White Lies," the poem that immediately follows.

The possibility for self-discovery is one of the most important features of the work described in Trethewey's three volumes, and Domestic Work contains several other first-person poems about the speaker's childhood experiences. In "Microscope," a title that underscores vision, Trethewey explains that her lessons in sixth-grade science included
 Small discoveries,
 magnetic push and pull, dull rocks
 breaking open to colored gemstone,
 fool's gold, and stars--already dead
 we were told--fighting the planetarium roof. (DW 38)

Looking for "Rays of Light" in the World Book Encyclopedia 1966 ("bought for the year / I was born"), the young girl instead finds "Races of Man," with pictures
 detailing Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid
 Hair texture, eye shape, color. Each image
 a template for measure, mismeasure. (DW 38)

When she puts one of her hairs, "straight and shiny," under the lens of the school's microscope, she finds that
 anything--fool's gold, a dead star, my hair,
 all of science, glittering and out of reach--
 up close could lose its luster. (DW 39)

This poem is a good illustration of Trethewey's belief that "One of the most important things about how you use objects in a poem is juxtaposition.... That's where you get tension ... and where you can work on its various levels of meaning" ("Interview" 367). The "magnetic push and pull" that the sixth-grader observes in science class anticipates all the other oppositions in the poem, climaxing in the emphatic "measure, mismeasure." Reaching for the stars, an innocent child is brought harshly down to earth when "Rays of Light" shatter into a rigid catalogue of races that erases her and all others who don't fit the template. Through a cold lens, her pretty hair is just another dead specimen.

The child's work of discovery is more hopeful in "Gathering," a poem Trethewey dedicates to her Aunt Sugar. Together, they wade through tall wet grass to pluck the "glistening" figs that have escaped a swarm of "[g]reen-black beetles" (DW 48). The un-ripe figs they "save" are "hard as jewels"; but the aunt "puts them to light / on the windowsill" and advises her niece "to wait, learn patience." Watching the green fruits "turn gold, grow sweet," the girl "begin[s] to see" that
 our lives are like this--we take
 what we need of light.

 We glisten, preserve
 handpicked days in memory,
 our minds' dark pantry. (DW 49)

Whether they glisten with sweat from the factory line, water from the washtub, dew from the cabbage patch, or pomade from the beauty parlor, many of the characters in Domestic Work do shine with a glow more of ripe figs than of fool's gold when Trethewey brings their work to light.

Facing the Camera in Bellocq's Ophelia

In contrast to the domestic work of the family and the community in Trethewey's first volume, Bellocq's Ophelia relates the doubly unusual labors of the elegant woman on the book cover: prostitution and photography modeling. The portrait was taken in Mahogany Hall, one of Storyville's few "colored" brothels, by E. J. Bellocq, who was known in New Orleans at the start of the twentieth century as a commercial maritime photographer. (6) Coming upon his Storyville pictures in a graduate class on "Materials for the Study of American Culture" at the University of Massachusetts, Trethewey constructed the persona of Ophelia after she realized that the sex-workers were of mixed race. (7) She explains that Ophelia "became, for me, not only a means to discuss and grapple with my own experiences growing up in the Deep South as a light-skinned and biracial woman, but she became her own self as well--which is what I enjoyed so much about writing Bellocq's Ophelia" ("Inscriptive" 1027). Trethewey identifies her character in the opening poem, "Bellocq's Ophelia," one of only four pieces in the volume not narrated by Ophelia. Describing a "limp" nude posing on a wicker couch, an unnamed viewer of Bellocq's work compares the photographer's model to the young woman who posed for Millais's painting of Shakespeare's resigned and dying Ophelia, prone on a stream of water. (8) Bellocq's Ophelia, however, has "a dare" in her face; and her lips are "poised to open, to speak" (BO 3). This modern Ophelia strives to become more than a spectacle for the male gaze; in Trethewey's book, she finds her voice and, finally, a new vocation.

Ophelia tells her story twice: first, through the "external" documentation of letters and, second, through the "internal" record of a diary ("Inscriptive" 1029). Trethewey distinguishes the two genres by using different poetic forms for the letters and the diary entries. The fourteen poems in "Letters from Storyville," titled by date from December 1910 to March 1912, average a page in length. Their free-verse stanzas vary widely in number of lines and line-length. The "Storyville Diary" entries, each with a brief title, such as "Naming" and "Father," cover the same period and are dated from October 1910 to March 1912. But these ten poems are each a uniform fourteen lines, and the lines often approximate blank verse. Like Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, Edna St. Vincent Millay's Fatal Interview, Robert Lowell's Notebook, John Berryman's Dream Songs, and Yusef Komunyakaa's Talking Dirty to the Gods, "Storyville Diary" works loosely with the sonnet sequence tradition. For Trethewey, the formal consistency of the diary entries hints at Ophelia's "intact sense of self," a solid core that resists her tendency to "become whatever it was she felt someone else wanted her to be" ("Inscriptive" 1029).

Ophelia's single "Letter Home," preceding the "Letters from Storyville" section, describes the country girl's difficult quest for a better occupation than domestic work and field labor. Writing in November 1910, presumably to her mother, Ophelia says she is still jobless after four weeks of searching in New Orleans:
 I've worn down
 the soles and walked through the tightness
 of my new shoes, calling upon the merchants,
 their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking
 my plain English and good writing would secure
 for me some modest position.... (BO 7)

Able to pass for white, she hopes "not to do the work I once did, back-bending and domestic" (BO 8). Ironically, she is soon installed in "a high-class house" by a madam who narrates the poem "Countess P--'s Advice for New Girls" (BO 11). Although Countess (as Ophelia calls her) boasts of the newcomer's ability to recite poetry for the clientele, her chief employment is once again back-bending, and hardly a "modest position."

All of Ophelia's letters after the early "Letter Home" are written to Constance Wright, a sympathetic teacher who met her when Ophelia, "a girl past school age who should be / attending a husband or some honest work, / c[a]me to learn, still, beside children" ("January 1912," BO 31). Schoolwork temporarily releases Ophelia from the sorts of physical labor portrayed in Trethewey's Domestic Work. In Constance's classroom, Ophelia can
 escape my other life of work:
 laundry, flat irons and damp sheets, the bloom
 of steam before my face; or picking time,
 hunchbacked in the field--a sea of cotton,
 white as oblivion--where I would sink
 and disappear. Now I face the camera, wait
 for the photograph to show me who I am. ("March 1911," BO 20-21)

Constance, who has traveled through Northern states, helps Ophelia to dream of a life beyond the rural community. For months, Ophelia borrows the teacher's copy of American Highways and Byways, a book she is delighted to rediscover in Countess's library, along with a globe of the world that reminds her of Constance's classroom globe. With details like these, Trethewey draws unexpected connections between the classroom and the brothel: settings in which the "still" Ophelia actively seeks new labors.

The similarity of the names "Countess" and "Constance" further links Ophelia's female mentors and guides; and a few mildly erotic passages from the letters to her "dearest friend" ("January 1911," BO 15) show that physical desire is not limited to Storyville, nor even to heterosexual relationships. In "December 1911," for example, Ophelia tells Constance she would like to photograph her turning from the chalkboard, "returning my own gaze" as the shutter falls softly: "that little trapdoor catching light, opening / and closing like the valves of the heart" (BO 30). She also describes reveries of Constance that occupy her sessions with Bellocq. Posing for his camera, she recalls "how I was a doll in your hands" when Constance brushed and arranged Ophelia's hair, "marveling / that the comb--your fingers--could slip through / as if sifting fine white flour" ("March 1911," BO 20). The rapt schoolgirl "could lose myself / then, too, my face---each gesture--shifting / to mirror yours" (BO 20). Chiefly, however, Ophelia writes to Constance not to explore the passions of female friendship but to describe her new "strange life" ("April 1911," BO 23) at Mahogany Hall, where her work constantly surprises her. She describes one man who does not immediately remove his clothes in her room, as most customers do, but who simply repeats her question, "What do you want?" (BO 23). To her confusion, he is curious--perhaps even sympathetic--about her own desires. Ophelia realizes she has no answer; she can no longer say what she wants, unless it is freedom from painful memories: "I could then be somebody else, born again, / free in the white space of forgetting" (BO 24). Fragmented allusions to assaults by white men in a country store and a tobacco barn back home indicate that Ophelia's journey to New Orleans was at least in part a flight from sexual predators. (9)

Ophelia is eventually able to leave Storyville because Bellocq's gaze is so different from the hungry stares of Mahogany Hall's patrons. In contrast to the hot-breathed customer whose monocle reflects a "small and distorted" Ophelia ("August 1911," BO 26), Bellocq sees through his sharp lens a bright apprentice, who comes to him with a life-long education in posing and color values. Bellocq offers to teach Ophelia how to work on the other side of the camera, how to become a photographer. His lessons, like Constance's, prove liberating. "What power / I find in transforming what is real--a room / flushed with light, calculated disarray," Ophelia says in a diary entry titled "Disclosure" (BO 44). The final letter she sends Constance is actually a postcard, "en route westward," in spring, a season of change and new life. American Highways and Byways is no longer a shelved book from her past but a vital glimpse of her future, perhaps as a traveling photographer like Bellocq. Ophelia feels "what trees must--/ budding, green sheaths splitting---skin / that no longer fits" ("March 1912," BO 33). Reinforcing the sensation of onward progress, the volume ends as she steps "out / of the frame" of Bellocq's camera lens: "wide-eyed, into her life" ("Vignette," BO 48).

Learning Mastery in Native Guard

Like Ophelia, the fictitious black soldier at the center of Native Guard, Trethewey's latest collection, is born into a new life through his work. And, like Ophelia's "Storyville Diary," the "Native Guard" sequence is a series often journal entries in sonnet form. While Ophelia is born in the Reconstruction-era South, however, the soldier is "born a slave, at harvest time, / in the Parish of Ascension" ("November 1862," NG 25). In this first poem of the series, he adds that he has reached the age of "thirty-three with history of one younger / inscribed upon my back" (NG 25), an image of a severe lashing by an early master that is as unforgettable as Frederick Douglass's memory of his Aunt Hester's whipping or Toni Morrison's depiction of Sethe's tree-shaped scars in Beloved. Reviewing Native Guard for the Washington Post, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington noted that Trethewey does not use dialect to represent the way an ex-slave would probably speak but, instead, gives the man "a literary voice--the voice of a nineteenth-century writer practiced in the diction and oratory of his time, of Frederick Douglass's masterful autobiographies, a voice that echoes the rhythms of great Western poetry" (4). The soldier's description of his humble birth in autumn has a Biblical cadence and mythic resonance: "harvest time" is an era of fulfillment, consonant with the reference to Ascension Parish, a Louisiana county whose name prophesies the slave child's rising fortune.

Most telling of all, the soldier ascends from bondage at the same age that Christ, scourged and crucified, rose from the dead. (10) Freed when his mixed-race master joins the Union Army, the former manservant enlists in the second regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards and is sent to Ship Island, off the Mississippi coast, to guard Confederate prisoners of war. Trethewey puns on the word "berth" and names the vessel to freedom after the star that led many slaves north on the Underground Railroad:
 my own
 berth upon a ship called the Northern Star
 and I'm delivered into a new life,
 Fort Massachusetts.... ("January 1863," NG 26)

The soldier must "haul burdens for the army no less heavy / than before," when he was a slave ("December 1862," NG 25); yet he describes the "dawn pink as new flesh: healing, unfettered" ("January 1863," NG 26). When supplies left unsecured on the beach wash away in a storm, "We watched and learned. Like any shrewd master, / we know now to tie down what we will keep" (27). The "Native Guard" sequence marks the soldier's growing sense of becoming his own master. He writes his words cross-wise over the pages of a journal from an "abandoned" Confederate house, creating a personal account of African American labors in the Civil War that counters the scarcity of public documentation. In her essay "On Whitman, Civil War Memory, and My South," Trethewey observes that African Americans are missing from most literature about the Civil War military, even Whitman's Specimen Days, his "monument to the common soldier" (52). (11) She speculates that, for Whitman, national reunion of the white majority was a more pressing cause than any celebration of the war work of almost 200,000 African Americans. In omitting this freedom struggle from the historical record, says Trethewey, writers have ignored "many narratives which would give us a fuller, richer understanding of our American experience" ("On Whitman" 52).

In creating such a narrative, Trethewey's soldier reveals the terrible extent of racial injustice in America. The guardsman describes a fellow black soldier who takes off his shirt for work, revealing "the scars, crosshatched / like the lines in this journal, on his back" from his years as a slave ("January 1863," NG 26). Yet, Yankee officers can be as cruel as Confederate masters, even though the Native Guards fight for the Union. To their humiliation, the guardsmen are called supply units instead of infantry, and the white Colonel says their physical labor is "nigger work" ("December 1862," NG 25). "White sailors in blue" fire upon the Native Guards "as if we were the enemy" when the black men retreat to their ship after confronting Confederates at Pascagoula, Mississippi--"an unfortunate incident," according to the Colonel ("April 1863," NG 28). Two months later, "colored troops" lie among the Union dead at Port Hudson, Louisiana, after a long siege, but the Yankee General Banks "was heard to say I have / no dead there, and left them, unclaimed" ("June 1863," NG 28). Nevertheless, starving black men continue to arrive at Ship Island, "eager to enlist" ("June 1863," NG 29). When the Native Guards are renamed the Corps d'Afrique--"words that take the native/from our claim"--the black soldiers feel even more like "exiles / in their own homeland" ("1865," NG 29).

Like Ophelia, Trethewey's soldier is a letter writer; but his letters do not connect him to friends or family. As one of his duties at the fort, he writes for the Confederate prisoners: "Some neither read nor write, / are laid too low and have few words to send / but those I give them" ("February 1863" NG 27). Despite the prisoners' dependence on his skill, they remain "cautious" and "wary," fearing the very sight of their jailors. Both racial groups are, at the same time, "rebel soldiers" and "would-be masters"; the narrator recognizes that "We're all bondsmen here, each / to the other" (27). As Nicholas Gilewicz observes, "The inversion of roles does not change the fact of their lives at that moment--both are bound to external forces, to each other, and to history." Perhaps that is why when prisoners die the soldier resists his superiors' orders to notify families with only the basic facts: "I'm told / it's best to spare most detail, but I know / there are things which must be accounted for" ("August 1864," NG 29). To emphasize the interrelatedness of black and white Southerners, Trethewey links each of the guardsman's ten journal entries in the manner of a corona sonnet sequence. Rather than follow the convention of repeating the final line of one sonnet exactly in the first line of the next poem in the series, Trethewey works variations. Thus, she connects two sonnets on the Confederates' dictated letters by ending the first: "I suspect they fear / I'll listen, put something else down in ink" ("February 1863," NG 27) and beginning the next: "I listen, put down in ink what I know / they labor to say between silences / too big for words: worry for beloveds--" ("March 1863," NG 27). The guardsman's empathy is beyond anything the white captives can imagine.

Most of the poems in Native Guard extend the meaning of that phrase, just as Domestic Work takes on multiple associations in Trethewey's first book. Trethewey says that the presence of the black Union soldiers on Ship Island made her begin to

think about myself and of Mississippi history and the idea of native. I saw a way to explore the tension evident in being a native of a place that has denied the full citizenship of many native sons and daughters. I see it as the native duty to ill] in the gaps in the cultural memory and in the historical record of Mississippi's troubled past.... I am a native daughter, and yet I am a kind of outsider. ("Inscriptive" 1032)

In "Elegy for the Native Guards," Trethewey describes her visit to Ship Island on an excursion boat. The Daughters of the Confederacy had placed a plaque at the entrance to the fort, listing the name of every Confederate soldier who had been there: "no names carved for the Native Guards--/2nd Regiment, Union men, black phalanx. / What is monument to their legacy?" (NG 44). In Native Guard, the poet raises that monument. She told Sally Hicks the volume is "a kind of lyrical marker," as well as "an elegy" for the losses the Gulf Coast suffered, long before Hurricane Katrina. (12) "Buried history" is her subject, whether she is describing her mother's gravesite or the presence of black soldiers on Ship Island ("Reading").

Reaching deeper into the South's past with each of her three books, Natasha Trethewey records the strivings of generations of African Americans. (13) Rita Dove praises the "muscular luminosity" of her verse forms ("Introduction," DW xii), but Trethewey herself pays tribute to the stresses on human muscles and minds. In the final poem of Bellocq's Ophelia, the title character recalls a childhood trip to the sideshow, where she watched in wonder as a contortionist performed. Reflecting on the physical demands of her own work in Storyville, Ophelia now realizes that "the contortionist, too, must have ached / each night in his tent" ("Vignette," BO 47). With all their aches and scars and bruises, Trethewey's laborers confront their labors, as W. E. B. Du Bois faced his, as Natasha Trethewey faces hers.

Works Cited

Banks, Ingrid. Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women's Consciousness. New York: New York UP, 2000.

Bellocq, E. J. Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans. Ed. John Szarjowski. Introduction by Susan Sontag. Rev. ed. New York: Random House, 1996.

Byrd, Ayana D., and Lori L. Tharps. Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. New York: Macmillan, 2001.

Campo, Rafael. Review of Domestic Work and Bellocq's Ophelia, by Natasha Trethewey; The Paintings of Our Lives and Days of Wonder, by Grace Schulman. Prairie Schooner 77.4 (2003): 181-85.

Dove, Rita. "Introduction." Domestic Work. Natasha Trethewey. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2000. xi-xii.

Gilewicz, Nicholas. Review of Native Guard. Bookslut April 2006. 21 Dec. 2006.

"Interchange: Genres of History." Journal of American History 91.2 (2004): 572-93.

"Research by and about Women: President's Commission on the Status of Women. The Work of Natasha Trethewey." PCSW homepage. 2006. 12 Jan. 2007.

Trethewey, Natasha. Bellocq's Ophelia. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2002.

--. Domestic Work. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2000.

--. "Inscriptive Restorations: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey." Interview with Charles Henry Rowell. Callaloo 27.4 (2004): 1022-34.

--. "An Interview with Natasha Trethewey." Interview with Jill Petty. Callaloo 19.2 (1996): 364-75.

--. "Lyrical Markers." Interview with Sally Hicks. Duke University News & Communications 28 Feb. 2006. 21 Dec. 2006.

--. Native Guard Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

--"On Whitman, Civil War Memory, and My South." Virginia Quarterly Review 8.2 (2005): 50-65.

--"A Reading by Natasha Trethewey." Transcript. Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts 5.1 (2006). 12 ]an. 2007. trethewey_n_text.htm.

--. "Taxonomy." Ploughshares 32.1 (2006): 180 -81.

Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo. "My Bondage, My Freedom." Review of Native Guard Washington Post Book World 16 April 2006: BW 4.

Young, Kevin. Review of Domestic Work. Ploughshares 26. 4 (2000): 205-07.


University of Mississippi

(1) I read an early form of this essay at the Society for the Study of Southern Literature's conference on Labor, Literature, and the US South in Birmingham, Alabama, on 1 April 2006. I am grateful to Program Chair Riche Richardson and her committee for the chance to participate. Special thanks to the reader for Mississippi Quarterly whose advice on the expanded version was unusually helpful.

(2) Trethewey's books are cited parenthetically below as DW, BO, and NG.

(3) Domestic Work was published a couple of years after the controversy over Carolivia Herron's children's book Nappy Hair (1997). See contemporaneous studies by Ingrid Banks and by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps.

(4) As Kevin Young remarks in his review of Domestic Work, hands are "a constant theme" in these poems (205).

(5) Trethewey's mother, a social worker, was divorced from her father, the poet Eric Trethewey. She was killed by Trethewey's stepfather in a domestic dispute ("Inscriptive" 1031 and "What Is Evidence," NG 11).

(6) See Bellocq for reproductions of fifty-two Mahogany Hall pictures of several women.

(7) Trethewey is currently working on a collection inspired by Juan Rodriguez Juarez's early eighteenth-century series of Casta paintings about the classification of people of mixed race in colonial Mexico. Her poem "Taxonomy: De Espanol y de India Produce Mestizo" [Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo] concludes with a comment on the servant boy who holds the infant of a European father and a Mexican-Indian mother. The servant is "dark / as history, origin of the word/ native" as he bears "the weight of blood / a pale mistress on his back, / heavier every year" (181). A news release from Emory University, where Trethewey is a professor of English and creative writing, says the book-in-progress is "tentatively titled Thrall "; along with the paintings, Trethewey's research includes maps, botany, captivity narratives, and early travel literature ("Research by and about Women").

(8) Trethewey identifies the speaker in three poems ("Bellocq's Ophelia," "Photograph of a Bawd Drinking Raleigh Rye," and "Vignette") as the "voice of the viewer" of Bellocq's photographs; this is "that voice which is closest to the poet's" ("Inscriptive" 1029).

(9) In "December 1910" Ophelia describes being "auctioned as a newcomer" to Mahogany Hall, "as yet untouched, though / Countess knows well the thing from which / I've run" (BO 13). In "February 1911" she remembers a man who pinched her "new breasts" at the farm store (BO 18); and in "April 1911" she describes a recurring nightmare of meeting a man on the plantation who wears a carnival mask and puts a shiny coin on her tongue. "I am the grinning nigger," says Ophelia, who cannot speak in the dream because she is choking on coins (BO 23). In an early diary entry, she remembers dreading childhood visits from her white father, "though he would bring gifts." "In exchange," Ophelia adds, "I must present fingernails / and ears, open my mouth to show the teeth" ("Father," BO 38), a physical examination not unlike the assessing stares from visitors to Mahogany Hall. In fact, Ophelia fears "the day a man / enters my room both customer and father" (BO 38). All of these men merge into a threatening presence from which Ophelia retreats, emotionally if not physically.

(10) In the autobiographical poem "Miscegenation," from a later section of the Native Guard volume, Trethewey says she was born "near Easter": "When I turned 33 my father said, It's your Jesus year--you're the same/age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi" (NG 36). This poem is a ghazal, with couplets and a refrain ("in Mississippi"), in the tradition of ancient Persian mystical poetry.

(11) In contrast, Trethewey cites Whitman's "great inclusiveness of blacks" in poems like "Song of Myself' and "I Sing the Body Electric" ("On Whitman" 52).

(12) Several poems in the collection are markers and elegies for her mother, including "Graveyard Blues" (NG 8), "After Your Death" (NG 13), "Myth" (NG 14), "My Mother Dreams Another Country" (NG 37), and "Monument" (NG 43).

(13) In her essay "On Whitman," Trethewey discusses her own (and also Whitman's) "love/hate relationship" with the South (51). A relevant poem in Native Guard is "Pastoral," in which she pictures herself in blackface, posing for a photograph with the Fugitive Poets. The sonnet ends: "My father's white, I tell them, and rural. / You don't hate the South? they ask. You don't hate it?" (NG 35). Trethewey's note on the poem identifies the borrowing, "in slightly different form," from Faulkner's Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom! (NG 49).
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Author:Hall, Joan Wylie
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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