Claiming the Property of History in Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard.
In her 2006 poetry collection Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey depicts hauntings, both personal and national, as she explores memories of her mother and the forgotten history of black Union soldiers stationed at Ship Island, Mississippi, during the Civil War. Several critics have focused on how Trethewey examines history, with Daniel Cross Turner discussing "undeadness" ("Lyric" 103), Elizabeth Bradford Frye and Coleman Hutchison labeling her poetry "Haunted" (37), and William M. Ramsey describing it as "ghost-haunted" (122). (3) These readings of how the past affects the present in Trethewey's poetry align with what Allan Lloyd-Smith describes as the commonly-held view of the Gothic's focus on "the return of the past, of the repressed and denied, the buried secret that subverts and corrodes the present" (1). Those "buried secrets" come back to haunt because of a desire for justice, according to Jacques Derrida, who explains that haunting fulfills the need for "responsibility" for "victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations" (xix). For all of these critics, haunting is a way for the past to continue to exist into the present moment, to be "undead" or ghostly. I argue, however, that Trethewey's poetry does not just show how slavery haunts us; it also reveals how we haunt slavery. The collection uses point of view and photography as portals in a kind of poetic time travel allowing Trethewey to flip the temporal direction of haunting and show the present haunting the past. This different conception of Gothic haunting not only provides a new way to see that "something lost, or barely visible," but it more significantly allows the poet to claim the past as property. (4)
This property claim crucially disrupts the paradigm of property and power that undergirds slavery in the nineteenth century and persists in racial discrimination in the twentieth and the twenty-first. In examining the legal history of race in the United States, Cheryl I. Harris observes that "it was not the concept of race alone" that oppressed African Americans: "it was the interaction between conceptions of race and property that played a critical role in establishing and maintaining racial and economic subordination." The "hyper-exploitation of Black labor" relied on a "form of property contingent on race--only Blacks were subjugated as slaves and treated as property" (1716). In Trethewey's depiction, people become literal property as unclaimed soldiers' bodies molder under the ground. The central poem of the collection, "Native Guard," depicts a formerly enslaved soldier stationed at Ship Island recording his experiences to claim himself, his story, and those fallen comrades. In "Elegy for the Native Guards," Trethewey then claims the property of that history. The use of haunting to underscore how the past can return in search of justice is key to many contemporary portrayals of slavery, such as Toni Morrison's depiction of "rememory" in Beloved. Trethewey's portrayal of haunting backwards, however, provides a different angle: the haunting of the past by the present signals what can now be claimed.
Traveling through Time
From its earliest iterations in eighteenth-century England, the Gothic genre has relied on ruptures in chronological time. The figure of the ghost or specter signals that the past does not remain past and the dead do not remain dead, leading to chaos in the present. Eric Savoy explains how this rupture then affects the individual in the present: "Gothic texts return obsessively to the personal, the familial, and the national pasts to complicate rather than to clarify them, but mainly to implicate the individual in a deep morass of American desires and deeds that allow no final escape from or transcendence of them" (169). In Trethewey's construction of a doubled movement of haunting, however, the individual is not only complicit in that deep morass of history but also haunts the past in traveling back in time. Trethewey achieves this time travel by employing point of view along with verb tenses to posit who is speaking and when. While the past speaks to the present in its lingering reminders of loss and death, the present speaks back to the past, shaping and changing its meaning. In this doubled haunting, the different points in time therefore engage in a conversation. (5) This exchange then provides an opening for Trethewey to construct the past as property.
The past figures simultaneously as a time and a place, a duality Trethewey establishes with the opening poem, "Theories of Time and Space." The use of second person in the first few lines thrusts the reader into a particular moment and location: "You can get there from here, though / there's no going home" (1). Throughout the collection, "here" orients the reader to a space/time reference, thus acting as a kind of signal for time travel, while "home" represents the time and space Trethewey will craft and claim. (6) The poem then instructs "you" to travel to a specific place: down Interstate 49 in Mississippi and then across the Gulf in a boat to Ship Island. Mile markers indicate that the trip happens concurrently through space and time, as they are "ticking off // another minute of your life" (1). In instructing the reader to take this road trip, Trethewey's poem rewrites Robert Frost's "Directive," which similarly instructs the reader to take a trip into the past in order to get "lost enough to find yourself," with the final "destination" being the past time and space of a "children's playhouse" (252, 253). Unlike in "Directive," however, the trip in Trethewey's poem does not end in a "watering place" that allows the reader to "be whole again beyond confusion" (253). For "Theories of Time and Space," the revelation is not housed back in a former time but in the conversation between that time and the present.
This conversation transpires within the very form of the poem, as the use of enjambment allows words to pertain to their current line and the succeeding line at the same time. For example, when the mile-markers are passing, the poet instructs the reader to "Follow this / to its natural conclusion--dead end // at the coast" (1). The "natural conclusion" of time passing is the "dead end" of death, but when the enjambment carries over into "at the coast," the speaker moves into the future. While the point of view in the poem remains in present tense with the "you" boarding the boat, the poem then switches to the future tense with the prediction that at the dock, "someone will take your picture." Though the poem does not depict the actual experience of visiting the island, something happens to the "you" there because: "the photograph--who you were--/ will be waiting when you return" (1). The switch to a past tense ("who you were") is an eerie suggestion that the photograph will show "you" were a different person before having visited Ship Island. The addition of the future tense ("will be waiting") suggests something ominously lurking. (7) The doubling made possible by the photograph renders the experience uncanny, as the second person "you" will be haunted in the future by a past version of a self. (8)
The trip described in the poem actually parallels the larger journey Trethewey takes readers on in the collection, starting from their lives in the present and moving to the past buried on Ship Island. The notion that "you" will be different after the trip betrays a desire that the reader will share the point of view depicted in the poems and will in essence let himself or herself be haunted. Being haunted by both the past and the future, the reader witnesses competing claims on history, as exemplified by "Pilgrimage," where the speaker journeys to the Civil War site of Vicksburg, Mississippi, along with pilgrims who visit during the spring to reenact the battle. The pilgrims travel back into the past explicitly to haunt and to be haunted because they wish to construct or even to own this history. David W. Blight, in writing about the contested meaning of the Civil War for the present, asks, "who owns the memory of the Civil War?" One of the many possible answers is "those who wish to preserve the sacred ground of battlefield parks for the telling of a heroic narrative of shared military glory on all sides" (279). The poem, however, troubles such ownership. The first word, "Here," which is repeated twice more in the first ten lines, brings the reader to the space of Vicksburg to witness the passing of time: "the Mississippi carved / its mud-dark path," and "the river changed its course, // turning away from the city" while the city resides on "abandoned bluffs." The speaker then moves back into the past to share the point of view of a woman in 1863: "I can see her / listening to shells explode." The speaker looks to the future from a vantage point in the past: the woman asks, " what is to become/of all the living things in this place?" In depicting her point of view in present tense, the poem causes the reader to share in her haunting by the future, a haunting whose end result the poem clearly reveals in the next line: "This whole city is a grave" (19).
In describing the pilgrimage the devotees make every spring in the next several couplets, the poem depicts people in the present intentionally haunting the past: "Pilgrimage--the living come to mingle // with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders / in the long hallways" (19-20). It is as if the visitors are summoning the ghosts of the past; as Frye and Hutchison explain, "These pilgrims (such as they are) seek sanctification via an encounter with holy ghosts" (38). The ghosts, though, respond with "silence and indifference," perhaps because they are not thrilled that future generations "relive / their dying on the green battlefield" (20). The bloody battle is now entertainment, and this present generation constructs a particular version of history by their willed haunting of the past. The speaker shares the tourists' point of view while visiting a museum where "we marvel at their clothes--/preserved under glass--so much smaller // than our own." The glass between the objects and the tourists speaks to an assumed barrier between the present and the past, with the past appearing so distant that the people are a different size. Yet the brochure in the speaker's room calls the experience "living history," a clear signal of the hubris of people from the present who think that sleeping "in their beds" negates the barrier.
This pretense of history evaporates when the poem reveals the name plate on the door: "Prissy's Room." As an enslaved character in Gone with the Wind, Prissy famously protests in an exaggerated, hysterical, high-pitched voice that she does not know how to birth babies. In alluding to slavery, the poem indicates that the past has horrors not fully attended to by the tourists. The poem shifts at the end to the first-person point of view as the past haunts the present: "In my dream, / the ghost of history lies down beside me, // rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm" (20). (9) After the series of couplets, the last line stands startlingly alone. The past is not on a "green battlefield" or safely under glass at a museum but is a ghost whose weight is constricting. Turner explains, "We are not hermetically sealed from ... the ghost of history's unsettled, unsettling presence" ("Natasha Trethewey's" 326). The past, however, is also not safely sealed from its future, as haunting in both directions evokes fear: the looming future truly terrifies the woman in 1863 about to die while the "heavy" past equally horrifies the speaker in the present contemplating slavery. The poem thus constructs a conversation of haunting in which the past created and claimed by pilgrims as they rent rooms in its houses clashes with the past claimed by the ghosts of slavery.
While "Pilgrimage" explores the public stakes of claiming history, Trethewey's collection further explores how personal histories intertwine haunting and claiming. "Southern Gothic" reveals how the haunting Trethewey describes in a childhood memory mirrors the larger haunting of the South by its history. Katherine R. Henninger explains that although Trethewey's personal poems "seem to present a voice of autobiographical transparency," the voice of the adult child is "carefully crafted" (56). Henninger argues that "as the adult child of her (black) mother and her (white) father, Trethewey offers her bodily self as symbolic 'offspring' of regional, national, and transnational obsessions with race and identity" (57). The personal reflects the larger historical context, a move I read as revealing the complicated tensions of claiming history. "Southern Gothic" opens in first person: "I have lain down into 1970, into the bed / my parents will share for only a few more years" (40). The present perfect tense of "have lain" indicates that the speaker has traveled back in time to the past, but the action is ongoing in that time. (10) Already evident, however, is the haunting by the future in the hint at the parents' eventual separation in a "few more years." The parents in this moment, though, are troubled by the girl's "endless why and why and why " about the ugly names that she, as a mixed-race child, is called at her school. More glimpses of the future disturb this scene, as the mother will have "cold lips stitched shut" and the father has lines that "deepen / toward an expression of grief." At this point in time, the family is still together: "We're huddled on the tiny island of bed, quiet / in the language of blood." This bed of shelter, however, is in an "unsteady" house, which is itself "sinking deeper / into the muck of ancestry" (40).
The point of view in 1970 is not only haunted by the future separation of the family, but also by the distant past of ancestry, a haunting made concrete by the conduit of an "unsteady" house. In marrying across racial lines, the parents actually break the law in Mississippi, as Trethewey points out in "Miscegenation" (36). This choice links them to a history of race relations that leads back to slavery. The family, then, on their "tiny island of bed" is thus haunted: "Oil lamps flicker / around us--our shadows, dark glyphs on the wall, / bigger and stranger than we are" (40). As the poem moves to present tense ("we are"), the shift suggests that the speaker in the present is not just reliving a past memory but that the past is still present and is still haunting. The "we" suggests that this haunting also includes the reader, who has been invited to take the journey of the collection. In "Southern Gothic" as well as in "Pilgrimage," the point of view moves backwards and forwards in time to show that haunting comes from the past and the present simultaneously. Although the past haunts this family, the poet moves back into that past to reclaim this moment for the present. The poem constructed in language becomes a form of property that, unlike the sinking, unsteady house, can be claimed.
Photography as Portal
In addition to employing point of view to travel through time, Trethewey uses photography as a portal to allow the present to gain access to the past and to allow the past to speak to the present. This exchange offers the possibility of capture, of using a photograph to claim the property of a moment in time by freezing it and later by framing it and owning it. Susan Sontag explains that "To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed" (4). Trethewey has certainly considered photography's ability to capture. (11) In Bellocq's Ophelia, Trethewey writes poems about E. J. Bellocq's photographs of New Orleans prostitutes. By photographing women whose bodies are for sale, Bellocq employs a secondary materializing and capture of their bodies. One of the women buys her own camera, though, desiring to claim a moment: "On the crowded street I want to stop / time, hold it captive in my dark chamber" (46). (12) This method of capturing time makes photography a particularly helpful tool for claiming history.
Trethewey, however, also complicates the stasis of photographic capture by imagining the larger temporal context of a photograph. She explains that "whenever I look at photographs I'm always thinking about a couple of things; the moment just before it, the moment after it, and what the subjects of the photograph could or could not have known about what was to come" (Haney 19). Thadious M. Davis's reading of Trethewey's use of photographs as "enfoldment" shows how the photograph can reflect multiple time frames and points of view:
the photograph provides both a way of seeing ahead to changes wrought by experience and of looking back at past formations of self; it is Trethewey's agile double subjectivity enfolded into the text and made plain by means of her vision of the camera and the work of the photographic space. (38)
What Davis sees as the layering of time and self, I read as the catalyst for the haunting allowed by time travel. Just as the picture taken of "you" in the opening poem reflects a past self you can see, photography allows a rupture in the strict chronology of time and the entrance of haunting. By granting the present access to the past, photography permits the present to haunt that past. Sontag explains, "All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another's person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability" (15). Witnessing that mortality through a photograph is much like traveling back in time to a Civil War battle the witness knows will end in the death of the participants. Moreover, the portal of a photograph can allow the past to haunt the present. In describing a photograph of her parents, Trethewey explains that her mother does not look at the camera but watches a young Natasha, and "in her watchful and loving gaze toward my childhood self, has turned away from a future she will never enter." Her father, however, "looks straight ahead, meeting the gaze I will bring each time I take out the photograph to look" ("Necessary" 58). While photography carries the potential for capture and ownership, any claiming must take into account the haunting that occurs with time travel.
The ekphrastic poem "Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi" exemplifies this tension, as it explores the documenting and claiming of Mississippi's history in a series of four photographs. (13) In the first section, "King Cotton, 1907," the speaker describes a photograph of a parade celebrating the cotton industry by using present tense. The poem depicts a flurry of movement, as "flags wave down" and "great bales of cotton rise up from the ground." In occupying this moment in 1907, the speaker anticipates the future arrival of President Roosevelt when "the band will march." This past scene available through the photograph is haunted by the future: "This is two years before the South's countermarch--/ the great bolls of cotton, risen up from the ground, // infested with boll weevils--a plague, biblical, all around." Although African American children ride the bales in the parade, the speaker knows the devastation that they will face and consequently finds this past haunting, as the children "stare out at us" (21). The second person plural "us" includes the reader in this haunting.
As if in answer to the anticipated suffering, in the next section, entitled "Glyph, Aberdeen, 1913," a photograph depicts a starving and disabled child. A man, presumably the father, "cradles the child's thin arm." The child is "haunting the long hours" of labor in the cotton fields, with the present progressive verb tense indicating that the child's suffering is ongoing. Though living, the child presents as specter. The questions--"how much cotton?" and "how much food?"--reach into the future, with the devastating answer in the last line: "like dirt heaped on a grave" (22). The previous section in its celebration of "King Cotton" haunts this photograph taken six years later, exposing the consequences of that industry, while the boy's certain death haunts backwards to the man's cradling of him. The moments before and after haunt the captured instant of the photograph. The original photographer doing the documenting found these scenes worth recording, but in crafting the poem, Trethewey makes "us" claimants to the tragedies depicted.
With the third section, "Flood," the poem moves to a different tragedy: people trying to find dry land during a flood but National Guard soldiers blocking the " black refugees " from the high ground until they "sing their passage onto land." The claiming of property thus turns literal in the question of who can occupy this land. For the first half of the poem, the speaker remains a viewer separate in time from the action in the photograph by simply describing the scene. But with "Here" acting as signal, the speaker makes the past present, as "the camera finds them still. Posed / as if for a school-day portrait." While the people are "still" in space, frozen and captured by a photograph, they remain "still" in time, ever present in their poses. Unlike the previous two sections where the future clearly forebodes devastation and death, in this poem the people "fix / on what's before them." What they see is an "aperture, the captured moment's / chasm in time." While the capture suggests stasis, the aperture acts as the portal through time. The poem brings the reader to this time by using present tense to locate the reader "here" in 1927, but the poem also locates these refugees in our present as the "refugees from history" who now "are waiting to disembark" (23). With the present progressive "are waiting," the photograph becomes a window to see a past that is still active and still haunting the present.
The fourth and final section, "You are Late," moves history even closer to the speaker and to the reader. A photograph shows a girl with a book in her hands approaching a library, but a sign indicates that it is closed. A second sign dates the photograph: "Greenwood Public Library for Negroes." The speaker makes explicit her desire to travel through time: "I want to call her, say wait. / But this is history: she can't linger. / She'll read the sign that I read: You Are Late" (24). By reactivating the photograph through ekphrasis, Trethewey still "arrives" at this time and makes this history present. Although throughout all four sections of the poem the pretense of traveling back in time carries with it the desire to intervene and prevent the suffering to come, being "late" indicates that the future cannot save the past; it can only haunt it. The speaker examining the photographs uses them as portals to travel back to a past that can be claimed but not changed, as the starving boy cannot be saved and the girl cannot be given better and equal access to the world of books. Yet these past scenes still haunt the present in the conflation of moments, so the boy, the girl, and the "refugees from history" are still "here."
Claiming the Native Guard
Haunting backwards to claim the past reaches a pivotal point in Trethewey's poems concerning the Native Guard. In uncovering the story of formerly enslaved soldiers and claiming this history as property, Trethewey draws from the Gothic's long interest in issues of possession. Ruth Bienstock Anolik traces the centrality of questions about property in the English Gothic tradition and argues in the conclusion of her 2016 book that the focus exists in American works as well: "We find American writers turning to the tradition of the Gothic with its preexisting preoccupation with possession to consider the new varieties of anxieties of possession that they encounter upon American soil" (201). Indeed, from the beginning of American literature, specters signal problems with property claims. Charles Brockden Brown's 1799 novel Edgar Huntly, for example, has its protagonist engaging in skirmishes in the Pennsylvania wilderness with ghost-like Indians who want to reclaim their territory, and the haunting of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables begins with Colonel Pynchon accusing Matthew Maule of witchcraft so he can acquire his property and build the magnificent dream house with seven gables. From this history, Trethewey borrows the Gothic coding of ghosts as returning to claim title.
In reversing the direction of haunting, Trethewey troubles the power dynamics of property and race. If, as Harris argues, "it was the interaction between conceptions of race and property" that oppressed African Americans, then Trethewey has to do more than just point out the racism of a segregated library, the laws against miscegenation, or the treatment of refugees fleeing national disasters. She has to claim property to restore agency. Margaret Jane Radin in discussing the "personhood perspective" of property explains that "to achieve proper self-development--to be a person--an individual needs some control over resources in the external environment. The necessary assurances of control take the form of property rights" (35). Since agency and personhood are bound up with property, then to counteract the paradigm of the past that leaves a man cradling a starving child and the refugees with no safe place to land, Trethewey must claim ownership of this past.
Claiming the intangible past through mere words may seem to be only an imaginative exercise, but property is, as John Brigham explains, "not a material thing. In conventional terms it is the relationship between people and the thing" (3). A person owns something, whether it is a house, a shirt, or an idea, because the community (the state) agrees with that relationship. Carol M. Rose explains the corresponding importance of communication to property ownership: "Possession as the basis of property ownership, then, seems to amount to something like yelling loudly enough to all who may be interested" (16). Because property rights are constructed through the communication of language ("yelling loudly"), Trethewey can use poetry to claim her property rights. Sherley Anne Williams, in her 1986 novel Dessa Rose, illustrates how writing can perform this function. Williams takes the 1829 capture and conviction of a runaway enslaved woman who is pregnant and the 1830 story of a white woman giving sanctuary to enslaved people on her farm and imagines a past where the two women meet (5). While Williams admits in her preface that the novel is "fiction," she still claims it both as "true" and as her property: "Maybe it is only a metaphor, but I now own a summer in the 19th century" (6). The power to reconstruct the past through writing becomes a form of ownership.
Trethewey makes claims to the past both in her texts by having a character write his story and through her texts by using Native Guard to rewrite the past and thereby claim it as a form of property. In the poem "Native Guard," a formerly enslaved soldier on Ship Island records the story of the black Union soldiers that history omits. He reuses a journal that he found in a Confederate home, thereby writing his story over another man's story. He also tells of writing letters for the Confederate soldiers held captive on the island, giving words to their messages home. In layering writing about writing that is written on top of writing, the poem highlights the conjunction of different narratives. (14) The soldier must claim his story in the face of competing ones. Written in a series of ten linked sonnets, "Native Guard" is presented as, in Pearl Amelia McHaney's words, "a palimpsest of words, literal intersections of stories as evidence of history" ("Triptych" 162). In telling this story through the voice of the unnamed soldier, Trethewey herself is reconstructing history, much as Williams does in Dessa Rose. It was in fact a white man named Colonel Daniels who found a diary in a Confederate house and used it for his own journal. To Trethewey, finding this journal with the cross-writing was a "gift" in that the "intersection" of words echoed the intersections she wanted to pose in her collection (McHaney, "Interview" 53).
But Trethewey does not use Daniels as the narrator or even his star soldier, a mixed-race slave holder named Francis E. Dumas, who freed the people he had enslaved and encouraged them to join the Union Army (47). "Native Guard" instead is in the voice of one of Dumas's men, a construction of history from the bottom; we are hearing the ordinary experience of a foot soldier in his own words. Destiny O. Birdsong argues that the use of first person "transfers the power of the record-keeper back to the previously silenced historical subject" (105). (15) In using present tense, the poem also transports the reader back to 1862 to hear from this man haunted both by his past in slavery and by wartime atrocities against black soldiers. In occupying 1862, the reader fears the future in which this story of African American Union soldiers has been forgotten, signaled ironically by the epigraph penned by Frederick Douglass: "If this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all/things sacred what shall men remember?" (25). Within the double movement of haunting appears this man's claim to the property of his own time and place, given that his story focuses on what he can keep, take, and claim.
The speaker begins by discussing what he wants to keep in memory from his time in slavery. He physically carries history "inscribed upon my back" but will exchange this "record" for the one he will now "keep" in "ink." While someone else "inscribed" his previous life, he now grasps ownership through writing. Yet he chooses to remember the past and to remain haunted by slavery, a choice not that difficult when the work assigned to the regiment of black soldiers mimics that of slavery: "no less heavy / than before" with "Half rations" that "make our work / familiar still" (25). Throughout the poem, the near-repetition of each sonnet's last line by the first line of the next sonnet reflects the doubled temporal movement of the soldier's "remembrance" of his past in slavery as he moves into a future different status as soldier.
His past is the property he can keep, but he takes the property of others as well when the soldiers loot Confederate homes and take objects including "this journal, near full / with someone else's words" (26). This depiction of the soldier's acquiring paper to give him the means to write echoes Absalom, Absalom! when Charles Bon writes to Judith during the war using stove polish found in an abandoned home. Unlike that fragment of a letter that raises more questions than it answers, this journal in "Native Guard" seeks to recount a fuller history, as the black soldier's words are "crosshatched" with the white man's, "his story intersecting with my own" (26). He is taking someone else's words, another man's history, in order to record in ink what he will keep from this experience.
The story the soldier tells is of a war that seems to extend his slavery, even as he tries to claim his agency. In the third sonnet, with the key words "Here, now" to signal the reader now shares his time/space reference, he looks out at ships in the harbor: "I can look out / upon the Gulf and see the surf breaking, / tossing the ships" (26), perhaps signifying on a famous passage from Frederick Douglass's Narrative depicting his jealousy at the seeming liberty of ships: "You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!" (325). The soldier "can look" because unlike Douglass, he is not technically enslaved. The next sonnet finds him witnessing a man with "scars, crosshatched/ ... on his back" (26), indicating that the "inscribed" past in slavery proves difficult to overcome, particularly in a place where these men are called on to be the jailors to Confederate prisoners of war, "those who still/ would have us slaves." Though the speaker counts these people as his property, as part of what he "keep[s]," he also realizes, "We're all bondsmen here" (27), as the white men are captive and the black men are conscripted. "Bond" underscores not just their captivity but also their status as property.
As the soldier works to claim his story through writing, he engages in a second form of writing by crafting letters for captives who are illiterate. The Confederates are "wary / of a negro writing," with only their signatures to make it theirs: "X binds them to the page." The speaker, however, tries to use his words to capture their thoughts: "what I know / they labor to say between silences / too big for words" (27). Writing is thus about binding, capturing, taking possession of something, which happens in this instance across racial lines. This seeming camaraderie, however, is cut short by yet another taking of property, the eating of the dead's "share of hardtack' (28).
Keeping what he remembers and taking what he needs in the present to survive, the speaker spends the last four sonnets detailing stories of the Civil War he wants to tell and claim, focusing specifically on events where black soldiers were killed. The first is the aftermath of a skirmish on April 9, 1863, when white Union forces fired on their own regiment of black soldiers as they were retreating, killing several men. Trethewey's fictional speaker quotes the real Colonel Daniels, calling it "an unfortunate incident" and claiming "their names shall deck the page of history." But the soldier guesses the future in answering, "Some names shall deck the page of history / as it is written on stone. Some will not" (28). Even as the reader of the poem learns about the erasure of the names from previous history, the poem becomes a new "page of history" and a claim of ownership. The second event is the decision by General Nathaniel Banks in 1863 not to bury black soldiers killed in the battle at Port Hudson. The speaker records Banks's disclaimer: "I have / no dead there." Though Banks leaves the bodies "unclaimed" (28), the speaker through the poem claims them: "I record names" (29).
In the last sonnet, the speaker lists "things which must be accounted for," including the renaming of the regiment "Corps d'Afrique," which the speaker remarks will "take the native / from our claim" (29). Although time will supposedly "render / mute" the story of these soldiers, the poem reveals that "Beneath battlefields, green again, / the dead molder," the verb "molder" suggesting action instead of stasis. Although "we tread upon" the bones in "forgetting," a "we" that includes the reader, the poem ends with "Truth be told" (30), a claim for a story that designates the soldier a native, one who both guards the land and has claim to it. In telling that "truth," the soldier reverses the power dynamics of slavery where he was only property.
In the writing of the collection, Trethewey doubles the soldier/writer in constructing her ownership of the past. In "Elegy for the Native Guards," she speaks through a modern point of view and reverses the erasure of the black soldiers' history, using the poem to erect the memorial that is absent at Ship Island and claiming her own moment in the nineteenth century. The poem fills in the gap left in "Theories of Time and Space" by detailing the trip to the island, and the reader discovers the experience that alters a person enough to make a past photograph seem to be of a different person. The poem includes the reader from the beginning: "We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead / trailing the boat--streamers, noisy fanfare--/ all the way to Ship Island." Written in first-person plural point of view, the poem keeps the reader involved as "we" see the remains of the fort and witness an incomplete construction of history as "we" read the plaque honoring the Confederate soldiers but not the Native Guard. The speaker then asks, "What is monument to their legacy?" The answer is twofold: nature, in that the remains of the fort are "half open to the sky, / the elements --wind, rain--God's deliberate eye," and the reader, who has now heard the soldiers' history and has taken the journey through space and time to Ship Island. In elegizing the dead who have no actual "grave markers," the speaker, the reader, and the poet in constructing the journey are claiming their story (44).
Although the collection pays special attention to this one slice of history, other poems illustrate that Trethewey targets southern history writ large. Trethewey comments that in the collection "I am very much asking, after Eric Foner's Who Owns History?, 'Who owns southern history or southern poetry?' History belongs to all of us and our one charge is to present it well with all the complexity and humanity that peoples' lives deserve and that art requires" (McHaney, "Interview" 60). That such complexity has previously been missing is clear in "Southern History," where the speaker remembers a high school history class with a textbook claiming of enslaved people, "Before the war, they were happy " and using Gone with the Wind as evidence. The speaker of the poem admits complicity: "our textbook's grinning proof--a lie / my teacher guarded. Silent, so did I" (38). Yet the poet Natasha Trethewey writes the history of this moment to reverse it. She even figures as a specter haunting back into history in the poem "Pastoral," as she dreams herself into a photograph with the Fugitive Poets (35). The poems haunt backwards to highlight the limited construction of history.
The final poem of the collection, "South," again combines the personal with the public, as the speaker claims her place in the South. The poem uses past tense to describe a journey with the repeating refrain of "I returned" (45, 46). The images of "white flags" (45) and "unburied" bodies (46) echo previous poems while the visiting of a battlefield and the coast parallel the journey made through the collection. These returns illustrate the reclaimed history that haunts the earlier poems. In a "field of cotton," for example, the speaker sees "each boll / holding the ghosts of generations" (45). The unclaimed bodies, which were reclaimed in "Native Guard" are now covered by "earth's green sheet." The speaker notes that she has returned to a South "Where the roads, buildings, and monuments / are named to honor the Confederacy," a history that the collection rewrites with its focus on slavery. The last lines, however, shift to the present tense: "I return / to Mississippi." In using present tense, she claims ownership: "native / in my native land, this place they'll bury me" (46). By taking on the descriptor "native," the poet becomes a living monument to the Native Guard of history. Trethewey claims the property of the past and her own eventual plot of land in the South.
Natasha Trethewey molds the Gothic into a useful tool for her poetry, taking its supernatural disruption of chronological time and reversing it. This disruption opens up the possibility of traveling through time to witness an 1862 Civil War encampment, a 1907 parade celebrating King Cotton, and a 1927 flood. Using shifting points of view and photography as portals, the poems depict haunting to teach readers that there is no safe barrier between past and present. Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth explains that postmodern temporality makes time "a function of position, literally of reader position," with the net effect of the reader being thrust into the text: "Readers must continuously recognize that when they read, as when they do other things, their consciousness is active, not passive; that reading time is not a separate arrangement where one brackets or neutralizes life but instead a full exercise of that life" (22-23). At the outset of Native Guard, Trethewey asks her reader to "try this" and describes a journey. If the "you," which then shifts to a "we" by the end of the collection, takes the journey, he or she must become haunted by the past. In the reversal of haunting, the reader moreover becomes a specter haunting that past, bearing witness to the claiming of history. Trethewey, as critics aptly argue, rewrites history in her collection, but she does more than this: she claims the property of the past by using writing to craft tales of ownership. Property rights are constructed in language, so they can be reconstructed in language, and the past can be claimed as property through the vehicle of haunting backwards.
SARAH GILBREATH FORD
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(1) For the debate over slavery's place in capitalism, see Beckert and Rockman.
(2) See also Spaulding, who explains that the postmodern slave narrative is "a political act of narration designed to reshape our view of slavery and its impact on our cultural condition" (4). Brogan shares Spaulding's view of how contemporary narratives rewrite history but offers a more expansive view of ghosts in ethnic literature.
(3) Still other critics place Trethewey's poetry in contexts outside the South. Pereira reads her work in mixed race studies, and Russell reads it as part of the "global South" in his comparison with Seamus Heaney.
(4) Haunting backwards appears in other contemporary texts. Octavia Butler's Kindred, for example, depicts a modern character traveling back in time to nineteenth-century slavery, while James McBride's Song Yet Sung portrays visions of twentieth-century African American culture haunting an enslaved woman.
(5) Jones argues that Trethewey's collection Bellocq's Ophelia also plays with time, "going backwards and forwards and backwards again in time" (424).
(6) "Here" appears fourteen times in the collection, while "home" appears twelve times.
(7) In some poems, even a possible future is evoked. In "Blond," for example, the poet imagines that given her "parents' genes," blond hair was a possibility that the odds "might have brought" (39).
(8) In discussing Otto Rank's writing on the double, Freud connects the double to the uncanny (235).
(9) Dreams are also employed as a method of time travel in "Myth" and "Pastoral/
(10) Other examples of the present tense in tension with a past moment are the lines "In 1959 my mother is boarding a train" in "The Southern Crescent" (5) and "This is 1966--she is married to a white man--" in "My Mother Dreams Another Country" (37).
(11) In "Pastoral," for example, the speaker imagines that the "flash freezes us" (35).
(12) The ability of a photography to capture a scene is also the subject of a poem in Trethewey's earlier collection Domestic Work. In "Three Photographs," a cabbage vendor criticizes a photographer who has apparently told her to act "Natural" by complaining that he will "make a picture hold / this moment, forever" (7).
(13) In a reading of Trethewey's exploration of "throwaway bodies," Goad offers a reading of these photographs: "the speaker facilitates an intimate link between viewer and subject and keeps the subject from historical obscurity" (277).
(14) See McHaney ("Triptych" 162) and Ramsey 132-33 for how the cover of Native Guard with a picture of the cross-hatched journal augments the layering of narratives in the poem.
(15) For a discussion of Trethewey's choice not to use dialect, see De Cenzo 33.
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|Author:||Ford, Sarah Gilbreath|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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