by Natasha Trethewey
Mariner Books 2007
Reviewed by John Deming
The More That You Appear
Pulitzers are great because you get to meet and be interviewed by NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Senior Correspondent Jeffrey Brown. Natasha Trethewey had the pleasure last month after winning the prize for Native Guard. She addressed the notions of cultural memory and historical erasure as they surface in the slim new volume:
“Erasure, those things that get left out of the landscape of the physical landscape, things that aren’t monumented or memorialized, and how we remember and what it is that we forget. I wanted to kind of restore some of those narratives, those things that are less remembered.”
Of the boundless horrors buried in that landscape, Trethewey resurrects two: the mistreatment and murder of the Louisiana Native Guards and the murder of her mother at the hands of her mother’s second husband.
In detailed historical notes, Trethewey explains the Louisiana Native Guards as African-American Union soldiers during the Civil War; the soldiers, it seems, were treated so poorly that even fellow Union soldiers were willing to shoot them dead. When the Confederates had a crack at a regiment of surrendering Native Guards, Trethewey offers in the astounding and circular title poem, the result was slaughter:
every lost limb, and what remains: phantom
ache, memory haunting an empty sleeve;
the hog-eaten at Gettysburg, unmarked
in their graves; all the dead letters, unanswered;
untold stories of those that time will render
mute. Beneath battlefields, green again,
the dead molder—a scaffolding of bone
we tread upon, forgetting. Truth be told.
The hog-eaten dead at Gettysburg had names and personalities before they were rendered hog-eaten dead, then fertilizer: a “scaffolding of bone / we tread upon, forgetting.” Trethewey, the daughter of a white father and African-American mother, notes that an officer in the 2nd Native Guard—“the son of a white Creole father and a mulatto mother”—had freed his own slaves and encouraged them to join the Guard. She’s done adequate research, it seems, but Native Guard becomes far more arresting for its duality: Trethewey employs her poet as guard to her own history, specifically her mother’s unconscionable death. The two themes are artfully entwined and profoundly relevant to one another.
That’s to say, Native Guard is conceptually brilliant. To me it reinvigorates the notion that to be alive is to forget; societies and individuals are inevitably urged forward. Here’s Emerson in “Self-Reliance”: “Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation to-day, next year die, and their experience with them.” It’s not easy for one particle to pull two over its shoulder en route to its own demise.
Human life will invariably cease at some point, and the question becomes whether that will darkly render anything we strained to remember as significant as a solar wind or bone crumb. So it’s inspiring to witness Trethewey’s confidence that it’s not only worthwhile, but vital to remember what we can while we’re here—to find worthiness in forgotten horrors, to dust off whichever ones we can. Native Guard is not a blasé “those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” lecture; it’s the regard that a tribute to the dead—particularly the ill-gotten dead—is something we the future-dead should get behind because it does them requisite tribute while taking the stand that our whole stretch here matters.
Trethewey told Brown she conceived of the book on an island just off the coast of her hometown of Gulfport, MS (where she endured an abundance of racial discrimination, something mostly downplayed beside the gross indignities suffered by the Guards and by her mother). She noticed a monument to dead Confederate soldiers in a place where numerous Native Guards became nameless dead:
All the grave-markers, all the crude headstones—
water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
The rhymes don’t blow your hair back, and while she’s deft at handling various forms, look elsewhere for formal innovation. But what’s important is how the crudeness of the absence of any legacy for the dead inflames and inspires the poet. Crudeness feeds on itself. Developing the book conceptually, she felt the urge to include her mother, as she explained to Brown:
“I was approaching the 20th anniversary of her death. And I’d started researching the Native Guards, because I thought that what I was interested in was that aspect of buried history, a collective American history. But what I came to realize, as I began researching and writing, is that I hadn’t erected a monument to the life of my own mother and that I should be the native guardian of her memory, as well.”
The poet, fixed in obsession with the Civil War South, realized with urgency that something much closer to her was at stake: her own mother’s history. The book is clearly the result of careful planning; if the idea to include her mother conceptually followed the urge to write about the Native Guards, it’s notable that most of the work concerning her mother is in the first section, with the Guards to follow. Her mother is more than her death; she is equally her life, which Trethewey knits into a stocking for us: “In 1959, my mother is boarding a train. / She is barely sixteen…” It would be easy to overindulge in a family member’s history, but brevity and precision are Trethewey’s strong suits in the 46-page Native Guard. She’s precise in which details she offers; as though standing on grasses fertilized by everything unremembered, she asks what if any evidence is left of the fact that her mother existed:
…Not the tiny marker
with its dates, her name, abstract as history.
Only the landscape of her body—splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal—her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.
Here we have an acknowledgement from the poet that “all things” settle. Whether or not she resurrects either her mother’s or the Native Guards’ histories might then be irrelevant, because her elegies will settle to—things will move forward, more people will die and disappear until the end of all we see. But to save a child from a flaming room on the deck of a sinking ship makes you no less a hero; I’d posit you are more the hero. Trethewey is taking a stand on how the Louisiana Native Guard’s legacy, and her mother’s legacy, should die. She does them both justice, with mostly commanding, elegant lines of wicked intellect.
There are rare side effects to her bechiselment: a couple of “poetic” moments feel far too grave. The first section’s closing lines, for example, stands out as a little predictable:
…that I too might lift
my voice, sure of someone out there,
send it over the lines stitching here
to there, certain the sounds I make
are enough to call someone home.
Native Guard usually makes up for its one or two slips into sweetness with its austerity. But when the austerity turns academic, a peculiar reliance on form emerges; at times, interest in a rather plain form marginally outweighs the content and the results are disappointing. The sonnets, the rhyming couplets, the pantoum (fun fact: it was spelled “pantoon” in the printout from the NewsHour interview) indicate a profoundly versatile brain, but sometimes work against her. The pantoum is rather elegant, but the sonnet “Southern History,” which recounts a high school education that ignored the history of racial prejudice, has a bit too much profundity for its own rhymey couplets:
three hours of watching Gone with the Wind.
History, the teacher said, of the old south—
a true account of how things were back then.
On screen a slave stood big as life: big mouth,
bucked eyes, our textbook’s grinning proof—a lie
my teacher guarded. Silent, so did I.
The sonnet form encourages her brevity, but the rhymes don’t add anything; instead they marshmallow the poem and hijack its gravity; in this and a few scattered other instances, adherence to form is distracting and deadening. That’s to say, the poet could have ditched her crutches well in advance of writing this book.
But teachers of advanced high school literature classes, don’t let these misfires prevent you from assigning this book to your seniors. That’s not to imply Native Guard isn’t dense enough for college-folk—only that its historical relevance and relative accessibility are well-suited to the albeit marginal publicity associated with winning the Pulitzer Prize. Excellent poems abound in this book (the title poem surely one of the best of the year). At her best, Trethewey delivers with recognizable thunder. It resonates, particularly with the book’s closing lines; she finishes with a final act of defiance: forget the racial bigots that made growing up in Mississippi with parents of mixed ethnicity a living hell; she is a Mississippi native and she’ll go into the ground there.
Where the roads, buildings, and monuments
are named to honor the Confederacy,
where that old flag still hangs, I return
to Mississippi, state that made a crime
of me—mulatto, half-breed—native
in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.
I imagine she’ll have these lines inscribed on her tombstone. It is not as though Trethewey can recover the names and family trees and favorite foods for each in the ungodly armada of the forgotten dead; this is not her aim. She is instead designing fresh and honorable ends for her mother and for the Native Guards. On both fronts, she succeeds through a willingness to dip into horrible history, bring something back, and scatter it as widely as she can before she too is gone.