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Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, is sliced into three sections with the first section paying homage to a mother who has passed from this world into the next.  In “The Southern Crescent,” travel plays a particularly prominent role, with the train “humming like anticipation” as the narrator and her mother travel east and she sees her mother in the window clearly.  Trethewey’s poems are concise and filled with imagery that anyone can connect with on a visceral level.

“Graveyard Blues” screams loss and regret from the “stone pillow” for the narrator’s head at the end of the poem to the “hollow sound” of the mud as it sticks to mourners shoes during the funeral in the rain.  And “Myth” is a heart breaking poem, an elegy to the narrator’s mother — a hope that she can pull her from the other side into the real world through her dreams.  Many of us can relate to deep loss and the desire to change that loss and bring back loved ones from the dead — as if we could resurrect them.

In the second section, Trethewey tackles the oppressive memory of history in the deep South and how it is celebrated, feared, and hated for its bigotry and death.  From the prosperous hills of cotton harvested to the humps on the children’s backs from years of hard labor in the fields, the lines draw parallels in different segments of the poem to shed light on oppression — its costs and rewards.  The narration in these is a bit removed, more like an observer commenting on the events.  In the final section, Trethewey melds the personal stories with the historic events of the South and slavery to reveal a love-hate relationship with her native state Mississippi.  In many ways these poems reflect the tension between the white ancestry and the black ancestry of mulatto children from the south.

Even from the point of view of a child learning history and it is depicted as though slaves were well-treated and happy, it is hard to counter the widely held belief even if ancestry tells the student otherwise.  From “Monument” to “Elegy for the Native Guards,” there is a desire on the part of the narrator to pay homage to these pillars of the black community who stood up for what they believed in and made the best they could from the hands they were dealt.  At the same time, there is this reality that sinks in and mars any monument that can be resurrected, especially when made as an afterthought or belated gesture.  Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey tackles not only the sense of identity these biracial children struggle with, but also the struggle of Southerners to explain their pride in their history when it is so riddled with hatred.

About the Poet:

Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966. She earned an M.A. in poetry from Hollins University and M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Massachusetts.

This is the 25th book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.

  • This sounds incredible even though I don’t read poetry. I’m intimidated by the intellect needed to grasp the meaning!
    Julie P.´s last blog post ..Guest Review: The Liberator

    • I think you’d be surprised how much you could glean from poetry if you gave it a shot.

  • Hm, this sounds like a collection I might be able to connect with.
    bermudaonion(Kathy)´s last blog post ..Review: The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories 2

    • If you pick it up and review it, I’d be interested to read your thoughts.