A Huge, Insurmountable, Feeling Thing

Natasha Trethewey at UNC Chapel Hill

All writing begins with a wound.

In 1965, a black woman and white man fled their Mississippi home to get married in Ohio. Upon their return, their legal status was ruled illegitimate, as was their brown-skinned daughter. A baby whose name, Natasha, was inspired by her father’s reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Natasha-a Russian name that means “Christmas child.” Trethewey’s first poem of the night, “Miscegenation,” told this story.

My favorite poem to write helps me find the correct form to contain my grief.

Trethewey then read “Myth,” a palindrome poem honoring her mother. “I keep you in, still trying / not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow, / but in dreams you live.” She said starting a reading with poems about her mother makes it easier to read poems about her father.

Natasha Trethewey’s father was also a poet. Eric Trethewey wrote five acclaimed books and enjoyed a career as both an author and educator. The easy assumption is that she became a poet because of her father’s influence. But Trethewey wants her work to give credit to her mother, too.

Trethewey explained she spends a lot of time digging into meanings of words. She looks at the OED’s secondary and tertiary definitions so she might deepen imagery and layering. When she looked up the word native (as in, Native Guard, the title of her Pulitzer Prize winning collection from 2006), she expected meanings that would allude to origin. Instead she learned that native is also connected to servitude, colonization, and thrall. Hence the name of her next book of poems, Thrall (2012).

Thrall is a history of racial ideas during the Enlightenment, a period of time marked by the codification of physical differences and power dynamics. Her ekphrastic pieces in Thrall review paintings depicting the Sistema de Castas, a porous classification system from New Spain (Mexico) that hierarchically ordered racial groups according to their proportion of Spanish blood. There existed more than forty combinations of three notable categories: Spaniards (the ideal), Indians (mixing could make them ideal), and black-skinned people of African descent (considered “tainted” and unable to achieve this “ideal”).

“I study / my cross-breed child.” A line from one of her father’s poems. A line that changed how she thought of herself and how she thought of her father.

How can a man love and so diminish what he loves?

Before reading “Help, 1968,” Trethewey said that often her mother would be mistaken for a maid. If out in public, white women would offer their apologies and hand her mother coins while doting on the young Natasha.

Trethewey read, “The Miracle of the Black Leg,” her poetic response to a painting of the myth. The painting: a metaphorical account of race and power. An artistic rendering with political placement, a white man above a black man. A white man’s dream of saints curing his ulcerous leg by replacing it with that of a healthy black man’s. A so-called miracle. Trethewey’s poem follows the story using the evolving derogatory language of race; from Ethopian to Moor to Ethiope to blackamoor to black man to black body.

The story of the body is our history.

She used to say that Thrall was the hardest book to write. Now she says it’s the hardest book she has to live with having written.

Trethewey mentioned her childhood visit to Monticello with her father. Also, the missing history that was later included in her subsequent visit (again with her father), decades later. As if time could heal Jefferson’s exploitation of Sally Hemings, his slave, the mother of his children. As if Jefferson’s political achievements, his linguistic abilities, his inventions, his writings (etc.) exempts him from complicity.

…as if to prove a man’s pursuit of knowledge is greater than his shortcomings.

Trethewey feels parsed by language, laws, customs, constitutions. They bifurcate her from the inside. She wonders how far back all this goes—this “taint” of blackness. She sees the myth of the black leg as a metaphor for what’s happening now.

We turn to poetry when we have some big, insurmountable, feeling thing. 

Trethewey said art is evidence. It speaks to a moment and offers clues to understanding what’s really happening. She says the Black Lives Matter movement is a great example. When folks stand up and say, “Hey, wait a minute…ALL lives matter,” Trethewey says she wants to remind them that yes, all lives do matter, but what are we doing to show that they all matter equally?

Not a sound.

Then folks in the crowd started snapping. Then more. And with a smile Trethewey said, “well, ya’ll are snapping for me so I’m going to end right there.”


One Comment

  1. Great piece! I love her madly! Sounds like a powerful reading.

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