Enthralled

by Ruminate Magazine October 09, 2012

[F]or many years I have admired Natasha Trethewey's poetry, so when she was announced as the new U.S. Poet Laureate in June, I was thrilled. In a bit of odd kismet, I first met her at a literary festival in 2006 in the town where I now live. I had travelled from the frozen recesses of Minnesota, where the hard winter crust was just starting to crack in the March days, to the gloriously green foliage of Charlottesville, Virginia. I was attending the Virginia Festival of the Book and was delighted over the course of my few days there to meet (or at least see) a fabulous array of poets (including Rita Dove, Jane Hirshfield, Gregory Orr, and Chad Davidson). I had already read Trethewey's books, Domestic Work and Bellocq's Ophelia, so when I brushed arms with someone at a reception and turned to see that it was her, all I could do was mumble an awkward "excuse me" and slowly rotate, wide-eyed, back to my friends. Six years later I have moved to Charlottesville from Colorado, and as fall begins to stretch its arms I see again with fresh eyes the loveliness of Virginia and the fortune of that festival as Trethewey continues to pop up in the media. In addition to being named the poet laureate (from the Latin word meaning “crowned with laurels,” which denotes victory or distinction), she also just released a new book of poems entitled Thrall. Much like her previous collections, Thrall deals heavily in and with the past--both her personal past as well as historical events. In “How the Past Comes Back” she begins,

Like shadow across stone, gradually-- the name it darkens;

as one enters the world through language-- like a child learning to speak then naming everything

Likewise in “Elegy,” written for her father (a major subject of Thrall, in the same way that Native Guard had a strong focus on her mother):

Perhaps you recall I cast my line and reeled in

two small trout we could not keep. Because I had to release them, I confess,

I thought about the past — working the hooks loose, the fish writhing

in my hands, each one slipping away before I could let go.

As in her previous collections, she shows off her flexibility, moving easily between free verse, ballad, sonnet, villanelle, and pantoum. Born in Mississippi and raised in New Orleans and Atlanta, Trethewey’s southern roots give a wonderful flavor to her work--a bit of rhythm, and bit of drawl, a bit of charm that’s hard to place but is present nonetheless. The landscape of the south makes appearances in her poems, too, as in “Pilgrimage” (from Native Guard):

Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up above the river's bend—where now

the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed.

Here, the past still plays a major role. She continues later in the poem:

In my dream, the ghost of history lies down beside me,

rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

I, for one, am glad that the ghost of history has her so pinned, because the poems that have come of it are gripping, passionate, and endlessly relevant. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress who selected Trethewey, was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “The more I read of it, American poetry seems extremely rich in diversity, talent and freedom of expression, and she has a voice that is already original and accomplished. I have an affinity for American individuals who are absolutely unique, and I think that this is one.” I couldn’t agree more. Trethewey began her official duties as laureate in September, and I only hope that as she embarks on this role she heeds the advice of former poet laureate Billy Collins, who wrote to her after she was appointed and said: “Make sure you still try to write some poems occasionally.” Thrall: Poems by Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) by Stephanie Lovegrove


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