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.

Mailbox Monday #198

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch. This month’s host is the Mailbox Monday blog.

The meme allows bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received:

1.  Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey, which I bought at Novel Places.

Through elegiac verse that honors her mother and tells of her own fraught childhood, Natasha Trethewey confronts the racial legacy of her native Deep South — where one of the first black regiments, the Louisiana Native Guards, was called into service during the Civil War. Trethewey’s resonant and beguiling collection is a haunting conversation between personal experience and national history.

2.  Thrall by Natasha Trethewey, which I bought at Novel Places.

Natasha Trethewey’s poems are at once deeply personal and historical—exploring her own interracial and complicated roots—and utterly American, connecting them to ours. The daughter of a black mother and white father, a student of history and of the Deep South, she is inspired by everything from colonial paintings of mulattos and mestizos to the stories of people forgotten by history. Meditations on captivity, knowledge, and inheritance permeate Thrall, as she reflects on a series of small estrangements from her poet father and comes to an understanding of how, as father and daughter, they are part of the ongoing history of race in America.

What did you receive?