Abbiamo il papa! Or the closest thing we have in the American poetry scene. Natasha Trethewey has been named Poet Laureate of the United States (can I coin a new acronym? PLOTUS!)
All kidding aside, I applaud the selection. Despite her tender years (I say that because she’s a year older than I am), Trethewey is a formidable talent, a poet of uncommon wisdom, understanding, and insight. Her Native Guard, justly honored with the Pulitzer Prize, surprised me with its formal range and intensity of experience. In numerous recent interviews, Trethewey has cast herself as a poet of collective history, and the titular sequence of Native Guard certainly fits that bill; but I was far more taken with the poems of personal history—and more specifically, personal loss. The poems that examine the absence left by her mother’s untimely death are, to me at least, the defining poems of the book. These often exemplify her gift for presenting the most telling detail or selecting the word that will resonate on the most possible levels in a given context.
In “What is Evidence,” for example, I love the image of the mother “leaning / into a pot of bones on the stove.” At once, it portrays her as a sort of ogre or witch, Medea stirring the broth of her own dismembered sons. And in the same moment, it suggests a real physical and psychological poverty, a person fallen on lean times (as the mind seeks to reuse the “lean” sound of the previous line ending). But when the poem then moves to a description of
Only the landscape of her body—splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal—her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.
suddenly, it become the mother’s own bones in the pot, which puts the poet in the place of the cook—the ogre ready to consume the body, or the witch stirring up the bones of the past.
Similarly, in the next poem, “Letter,” the images, the metaphors, are perfect and precise (and I love how the word “settled” in the second line ties this poem with “What is Evidence” before it. In “Letter,” a simple slip of the pen (and where writers are concerned, is any typo anything less than a Freudian slip?) changes the word “errand” to “errant.” Trethewey then riffs on the image of the “t” as:
…a mark that crosses
like the flat line of your death, the symbol
over the church house door, the ashes on your forehead
I love the way death and religion are commingled. The ramifications are intriguing—the cross as the symbol of resurrection, for example. But then the speaker tries to “cross the word out,” only to find that a word crossed out only draws attention to itself. She is no doubt “cross” about the whole thing. But taken overall, the poem is a wonderful demonstration of how grief, held in check, can suddenly overwhelm our defenses, incited by the most innocuous of circumstances.
I’ll wrap up with my two favorite poems in the volume, “Myth” and “Monument.” The first poem is among the most intriguing recastings of the Orpheus story I’ve ever encountered. That’s perhaps because the synthesis of the speaker as Trethewey and the speaker as Orpheus is so complete. Trethewey’s failure to rescue and revitalize her mother is superimposed on Orpheus’s failure to bring back Eurydice from Hades (or perhaps it’s the other way around?). It’s interesting that the speaker does not use the familiar name “Hades” to refer to the underworld, but the less common “Erebus.” The latter name is associated with a host of personifications of light and darkness, day and night, so “Erebus” might have additional connotations for Trethewey as a person of mixed racial heritage. But much though I love the Greek myths, what truly astonished me about this poem is the formal structure. I love poems that do things that simply can’t be done in any other medium, and this poem does exactly that. It consists of two sections of nine lines each arranged in terza rima stanzas (aba aba aba). The second half rewrites the first half—in reverse! The effect is to convey the experience of traveling down in the darkness of the underworld and then to return (empty handed) along the same path. I’ve seen similar formal tricks—Larkin, for example, mirrors the end words in his two-stanza poem “Wires”—but here, it’s more than just a play of formal acumen, it extends the central trope in a visceral manner. Truly remarkable.
“Monument” can be viewed as a companion piece in that it also delves into the underworld. In this case, it’s a colony of ants that are doing the digging, the excavating. I just love the description of how the ants
like everything I’ve forgotten—disappear
into the subterranean—a world
made by displacement.
And in the next line, “In the cemetery / last June, I circled, lost—” the power of the line break is formidable, forcing the word “lost” into double duty. On the literal level, the speaker is physically lost (in the adjectival sense); but because the word follows immediately upon the previous verb “circled,” it wants to be read as a verb, too, as in, the speaker has lost something. The image then focuses on the ants that are building a hill on top of the mother’s grave. In a sense, this is also an Orpheus poem, the speaker descending in the guise of the ants to reclaim the lost love, but ultimately unable to do so. But there’s also a whiff of Hamlet, as the speaker chides herself for not trying harder to avenge or bring peace to the lost parent. And of course, in the image of the ants piling the dirt before her, like vassals offering tribute to the pharaoh, is gripping. Indeed, one can even detect a bit of the Osiris story, with the attempt to piece the lost lover back together again.
I must confess that even before I started reading Native Guard I was inclined to like it. Trethewey was the one who selected my second book for publication, so she’ll always have a place in my heart. But even aside from that, I do believe her poetry warrants the attention and accolades that have been lavished upon it.