Poetry Readings: Natasha Trethewey



thank you and thank you for bearing with me as we got this microphone setup I was telling professor bird I've been traveling so much that my voice is perpetually a little bit hoarse and I was afraid that it might crack in the middle of trying to read to you tonight I think I've always been interested in these intersections between public history and private stories family history and that was certainly the reason I set out to write native guard I used to go down to Ship Island which is an island stationed off the coast of my hometown Gulfport Mississippi on the 4th of July every year and take a tour of the fort and there was never any mention of the black soldiers the Louisiana native guards who were the first officially sanctioned regiment of African American Union soldiers in the Civil War who were stationed there and it occurred to me that that was a part of our history as Americans a proud history that would have been great to have known when I was growing up as a little girl and so I began writing the book there and of course as the poet mark Doty says our metaphors go out ahead of us and as I was researching and writing about this buried history it occurred to me very late in the process that there was something else I was trying to uncover and to memorialize as well my own mother who had been gone for 20 years at that point so I'm gonna start with some of those elegiac poems I was just talking to a young woman in the audience who's on her way to Wake Forest next week on a train her first train trip and so I'm gonna begin with a poem about a train it's called the Southern Crescent the Southern Crescent was a train that had part of its route between New Orleans and Atlanta the southern Crescent in 1959 my mother is boarding a train she is barely 16 her one large grip bulging with homemade dresses whisper of crinoline and lace her name stitched inside each one she is leaving behind the dirt roads of Mississippi the film of red dust around her ankles the thin whistle of wind through the floorboards of the shotgun house the very idea of home ahead of her days of travel one town after the next and California a word she can't stop repeating over and over she will practice meeting her father imagine how he must look how different now from the one photo she has of him she will look at it once more pulling into the station at Los Angeles and then again and again on the platform no one like him in sight the year the old Crescent makes its last run my mother insists we ride it together we leave Gulfport late morning heading east years before we rode together to meet another man my father waiting for us as our train derailed I don't recall how she must have held me how her face sank as she realized again the uncertainty of it all that trip to gone wrong today she is sure we can leave home bound only for whatever awaits us the Sun now setting behind us the rails humming like anticipation the train pulling us toward the end of another day i watch each small town passed before my window until the light goes and the reflection of my mother's face appears clearer now as evening comes on dark and certain this next poem has an epigraph from Robert Herrick that reads fair daffodils we weep to see you haste away so soon genus narcissus the road I walked home from school was dense with trees and shadow Creekside and lit by yellow daffodils early blossoms bright against winters last grey days I must have known they grew wild thought no harm in taking them so I did gathering up as many as I could hold then presenting them in a jar to my mother she put them on the sill and I sat nearby watching light bend through the glass de easing into evening proud of myself forgiving my mother some small thing childish vanity I must have seen in them some measure of myself the slender stems each blossom a head lifted up toward praise or about to meet its reflection walking home those years ago I knew nothing of narcissus or the daffodils short spring how they dry like graveside flowers rustling when the wind blew a whisper treacherous from the sill be taken with yourself they said to me die early to my mother this next poem is a blue sonnet graveyard blues it rained the whole time we were laying her down rain from Church to grave when we put her down the suck of mud at our feet was a hollow sound when the preacher called out I held up my hand when he called for a witness I raised my hand death stops the bodies work the souls a journeyman the Sun came out when I turned to walk away glare down on me as I turned and walked away my back to my mother leaving her where she lay the road going home was parked with holes that homegoing roads always full of holes though we slow down times wheel still rolls I wonder now among names of the dead my mother's name stone pillow for my head and this poem relies a little bit on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice the other strange thing about it is that it's a palindrome myth I was asleep while you were dying it says if you slip through some rift a hollow I make between my slumber and my waking the air of us I keep you in still trying not to let go you'll be dead again tomorrow but in dreams you live so I try taking you back into mourning sleep heavy turning my eyes open I find you do not follow again and again this constant forsaking again and again this constant forsaking my eyes open I find you do not follow you back into mourning sleep heavy turning but in dreams you live so I try taking not to let go you'll be dead again tomorrow the Erebus I keep you in still trying I make between my slumber and my waking it says if you slip through some rift a hollow I was asleep while you were dying when I began this book many years ago the first poem that I wrote for it which also became the first poem in the book was a very figurative poem that contemplates our inability to return to those places that we've called home once we've left them behind not because they've changed but because we've changed in August of 2005 this poem became quite literal my hometown is Gulfport Mississippi one of the places wiped out by Katrina theories of time and space you can get there from here though there's no going home everywhere you go we'll be somewhere you've never been try this head south on Mississippi 49 one by one mile markers ticking off another minute of your life follow this to its natural conclusion dead end at the coast the pier at Gulfport where riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches in a sky threatening rain cross over the man-made beach 26 miles of sand dumped on the mangrove swamp buried terrain of the past bring only what you must carry tome of memory it's random blank pages on the dock where you board the boat for Ship Island someone will take your picture the photograph who you were we'll be waiting when you return I had to do a lot of returning to Mississippi to write this book as well and on one of my trips I decided that I wanted to go to the Vicksburg Military Park I wanted to consider Civil War history there and in other places around Mississippi and so I called one of those old Antebellum mansions that's now being used as a a bed-and-breakfast hotel and I asked for some rooms I was going to get a room and stay several nights and do research and they told me that there were several rooms in the mansion but there were also a few rooms available in the renovated coach house and other small buildings in the back and I said no I'd like to be in the big house and I was and this is what happened pilgrimage Vicksburg Mississippi here the Mississippi carved its mud dark path a graveyard for skeletons of sunken river boats here the river changed its course turning away from the city as one turns forgetting from the past the abandoned Bluffs land sloping up above the river's bend where now the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed here the dead stand up in stone white marble on Confederate Avenue I stand on ground once hollowed by a web of caves they must have seemed like catacombs in 1863 to the woman sitting in her parlor candlelit underground I can see her listening to shells explode writing herself into history asking what is to become of all the living things in this place this whole city is a grave every spring pilgrimage the living come to mingle with the dead rush against their cold shoulders in the long hallways listen all night to their silence and indifference relive their on the green battlefield at the Museum we marvel at their clothes preserved under glass so much smaller than our own as if those who wore them were only children we sleep in their beds the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs draped in flowers funeral a blur of petals against the river's gray the brochure in my room calls this living history the brass plate on the door reads Christie's room a window frames the river's crawl toward the Gulf in my dream the ghost of history lies down beside me rolls over pins me beneath a heavy arm about ten years ago the state of Alabama voted whether or not to remove the anti-miscegenation laws from the books and though the vote was in favor of getting rid of those laws about 40-some percent of the population voted to keep them so that at least symbolically they could say that parents like mine shouldn't be married legally and people like me born legitimately in the state this is one of the sources of that psychological exile miscegenation in 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi they went to Ohio to marry returned to Mississippi they crossed the river into Cincinnati a city whose name begins with a sound like sin the sound of wrong miss in Mississippi a year later they moved to Canada followed a route the same as slaves the Train slicing the white glaze of winter leaving Mississippi Faulkner's Jo Christmas was born in winter like Jesus given his name for the day he was left at the orphanage his race unknown in Mississippi my father was reading war and peace when he gave me my name I was born near Easter 1966 in Mississippi 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 I know more than Joe Christmas did Natasha is a Russian name though I'm not it means Christmas child even in Mississippi my mother dreams another country already the words are changing she is changing from color to Negro black still years ahead this is 1966 she is married to a white man and there are more names for what grows inside her it is enough to worry about words like mongrel and the infertility of mules and mulatos while flipping through a book of baby names she has come home to wait out the long months her room unchanged since she's been gone dolls winking down from every shelf all of them white every day she is flanked by the rituals of superstition and there is a name she will learn for this too maternal impression the shape like an unknown country marking the back of the newborns thigh for now women tell her to clear her head to steady her hands or she'll gray a lock of the child's hair wherever she worries her own imprint somewhere the outline of a thing she craves too much they tell her to stop her cravings by eating dirt all spring she is sat on her hands her fingers numb for a while each day she can't feel anything she touches the arbor out back the landscapes green tangle the molehill of her own swelling here outside the city limits car speed by clouds of red dust in their wake she breathes it in Mississippi then drifts towards sleep thinking of someplace she's never been late Mississippi is a dark backdrop bearing down on the windows of her room on the TV in the corner the station signs off broadcasting its nightly salutation the waving stars and stripes our National Anthem southern gothic I have lain down into 1970 into the bed my parents will share for only a few more years early evening they have not yet turned from each other in sleep their bodies curved parentheses framing the separate lives they'll wake to dreaming I am again the child with too many questions the endless why and why and why my mother cannot answer her mouth closed a gesture toward her future cold lips stitched shut the lines in my young father's face deepened toward an expression of grief I have come home from the schoolyard with the words that shadow us in this small southern town peckerwood and nigger-lover half-breed and zebra words that take shape outside us we're huddled on the tiny island of bed quiet in the language of blood the house unsteady on its cinderblock haunches sinking deeper into the muck of ancestry oil lamps flicker around us our shadows dark glyphs on the wall bigger and stranger than we are this poem has an epigraph from Allen Tate's ode to the Confederate dead that reads now that the salt of their blood stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea elegy for the native guards we leave Gulfport at noon gulls overhead trailing the boat streamers noisy fanfare all the way to Ship Island what we see first is the fort its roof of grass alley half reminder of the men who served there a weathered monument to some of the dead inside we follow the Ranger hurried though we are to get to the beach he tells of graves lost in the Gulf the island split in half when Hurricane Camille hit shows us casemates cannons the store that sells souvenirs tokens of history long buried the Daughters of the Confederacy has placed a plaque here at the fort's entrance each Confederate soldiers name raised hard in bronze no names carved for the native guards 2nd regiment Union men black phalanx what is monument to their legacy all the grave markers all the crude headstones water lost now fish dart among their bones and we listen for what the waves in tone only the fort remains near 40 feet high round unfinished half open to the sky the elements wind rain God's deliberate eye I'm gonna finish up now with three poems this is Monument today the ants are busy beside my front steps weaving in and out of the hill they're building I watch them emerge and like everything I've forgotten disappear into the subterranean a world made by displacement in the cemetery last June I circled lost weeds and grass grown up all around the landscape blurred and waving at my mother's grave ants streamed in and out like arteries a tiny hill rising above her untended plot bit by bit red dirt piled up spread like a rash on the grass I watched a long time the ants determined work how they brought up soil of which she will be part and piled it before me believe me when I say I've tried not to begrudge them their industry this reminder of what I haven't done even now the mound is a blister on my heart a red and humming swarm incident we tell the story every year how we peered from the windows shades drawn though nothing really happened the charred grass now green again we peered from the windows shades drawn at the cross trust like a Christmas tree the charred grass still green then we darkened our wounds lit the hurricane lamps at the cross trust like a Christmas tree a few men gathered white as angels in their gowns we darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil it seemed the angels had gathered white men in their gowns when they were done they left quietly no one came the wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil by morning the flames had all dimmed when they were done the men left quietly no one came nothing really happened by morning all the flames had dimmed we tell the story every year and this last poem has an epigraph from yo wilson that reads homo sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile south I return to a stand of pines bone thin phalanx flanking the roadside tangle of understory a dialectic of dark and light and magnolias blossoming like afterthought each flower a surrender white flags draped among the branches I return to Lands End the swath of coast clear-cut and buried in sand mangrove Live Oak Gulf we've raised and replaced by thin palms Paul Meadows symbols of victory or defiance over and over marking this vanquished land I returned to a field of cotton hallowed ground as slave legend goes each Bowl holding the ghosts of generations those who measured their days by the heft of sacks and lengths of rose who sweat flecked the cotton plants still sewn into our clothes I returned to a country battlefield where colored troops fought and died Port Hudson where their bodies swelled and blackened beneath the Sun unburied until Earth's green sheet pulled over them unmarked by any headstones where the roads buildings and monuments are named to honor the Confederacy where that old flag still hangs I returned to Mississippi State that made a crime of me mulatto half-breed native in my native land this place they'll bury me thank you you know the myth of Orpheus and Euridice okay that's one of the things who does know that minute whenever I say that I'm assuming most people know what I'm talking about well you probably do know it but maybe you're forgetting the name of it but that's the myth in which Orpheus has to go down into the underworld to bring your idiocy back and he's told that he can take her out but he can't turn around and look at her she's gonna follow him out of the underworld but if he turns around and looks at her she's gonna vanish just like that and at some point he can't resist turning around and looking at her and he does and she goes back for me that very much replicates the feeling of the dream a dream that I might have if knowing that my mother is dead I dream that she's alive I mean there's some dreams where she's clearly dead in the dream and I know it but there's a few dreams that she's alive in the dream and it seems so real and then I wake up and there's that moment of realization all over again that she's really dead and it the grief is fresh and is very much to me like that moment when Orpheus turns around and she goes that way and he goes back out and so the poem goes all the way until it gets to that one point and then as I began to wake up I turn she goes back and I come awake and so in order for the poem that sort of seamless balance between form and content the form really kind of echoes that feeling of going down into that dream world that Erebus that underworld and then retreating and returning every morning without her yes mmm I found out long after most of the world it seemed because they announced it they don't tell you if you're a finalist or anything like that they just announce it on their website and I guess three o'clock and it goes out to all the reporters and I teach a class on Mondays from 2:00 to 5:00 and so at two o'clock I turned off my cell phone walked into class and reporters started calling me but they couldn't reach me and so finally they started calling the English department and creative writing and so at about 4:30 the the administrator in the creative writing program ran over to my building and said I gotta take out a class to tell you something and she said that the look on my face was you know sheer terror or something and she said no no it's it's it's good and so I walked out and she took a couple of deep breaths and and then she said you wanted to Pulitzer and I screamed and it was a kind of blood-curdling scream that made my students think that something bad had happened and she had to go in there and say no no she won two Pulitzer and then they started applauding and then I walked back in class and said class dismissed and he said but that was but apparently and then I I immediately called my husband and then I called my father I couldn't get my father on the phone because he had left his office and I got him another hour after that and he said oh my god everybody had been emailing him saying congratulations but nobody was telling him why they just figured he would know so congratulations but know no reason why yes well I mean I think it's it's all for both really you know I like Phil Levine says I write what I've been given to write and I think I have these histories and these stories to make sense to grapple with but I have to do it in such a way that it moves beyond something that's simply for me but that's something I can give away in language to a reader who I hope you know across time and space will find something there yes you know the thing that's most difficult is hearing myself read them out loud because they're I mean I I like the poems I do they mean a lot to me but um it's not I don't think you know I can never predict when I'm going to feel a fresh grief I don't know that and I can go you know several readings and and not feel you know anything except how I'm trying to make the language sound like a song as I read it but there would be moments for some reason that something would would get to me I mean to tell you the truth and I'll say this just for the sake of honesty but the the the first time I heard someone say it and and professor bird actually said it tonight too and it always sort of causes me to a little bit of catch in my throat but I gave a reading not too long ago and in the introduction the young woman who was introducing me said that you know there are these themes in the book and and one of them is that I I revisit the the murder of my mother and I really feel like in the poems I'm actually revisiting my own grief and not the murder they're they're not about the murder but that sort of a thing that's been out there and people have been saying it occasionally I liked what you said because then you add it to it and the murder of the these black soldiers as well and so that kind of tied it together in another way but you hear that word for me it's not yeah so yes right right yes mm-hmm you won't tell me you want to tell me a theory okay so wait a minute I if I say what is the bad it's just going to affect your grade well one of the things that I try to make clear in the in the poem is that because that it has that title you are late and those are the last lines to UM that's actually there are two signs that the the in the photograph as the girl is walking up to the stairs and one isn't you know this the sign on the door of the library and the other is a sign with a finger that says you're late and so it's like the the library's closed somehow you know she doesn't have any access to it and so looking at that photograph instead of knowing you know the history of Jim the Jim Crow era in the south you know there's obviously a part of me that would wishes that I could go back and and and right the wrongs of history but we're all too late to history the one thing we can't do is return to it and right the wrongs of the past except in this present moment somebody asked me last week you know you always write about the past you never write about the present and I said I'm always writing about the present so yeah it's about being late you know to history that one of your theories all right all right good I'm so glad you know that good good well you've been a most gracious audience thank you

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