Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, March 12, 2006

Natasha Trethewey's remarkable new book, Native Guard, takes its title from the unit of black Union soldiers assigned to guard Confederate prisoners of war. This piece of American history, previously unknown to me as I assume it is to most readers, took place at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island in the state of Mississippi, where Trethewey was born.

The book's title sequence presents some of the history in a series of poems in the first person: the voice of a slavery-born Native Guard soldier who recounts, for example, the recorded incident where white Union troops fired on the Native Guard rather than on the white Confederate enemy. (An "unfortunate incident," in a colonel's words as Trethewey reports and annotates them.)

Here is Trethewey's "Elegy for the Native Guards." The rhyme emphasizes the demand that we assimilate and consider and consult our history:

Elegy for the Native Guards

Now that the salt of their blood

Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea . . .

-- Allen Tate

We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead

trailing the boat--streamers, noisy fanfare--

all the way to Ship Island. What we see

first is the fort, its roof of grass, a lee--

half reminder of the men who served there--

a weathered monument to some of the dead.

Inside we follow the ranger, hurried

though we are to get to the beach. He tells

of graves lost in the Gulf, the island split

in half when Hurricane Camille hit,

shows us casemates, cannons, the store that sells

souvenirs, tokens of history long buried.

The Daughters of the Confederacy

has placed a plaque here, at the fort's entrance--

each Confederate soldier's name raised hard

in bronze; no names carved for the Native Guards--

2nd Regiment, Union men, black phalanx.

What is monument to their legacy?

All the grave markers, all the crude headstones--

water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,

and we listen for what the waves intone.

Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,

round, unfinished, half open to the sky,

the elements--wind, rain--God's deliberate eye.

The adjective "deliberate" for God's eye has many resonances and associations, including the word's form as a verb, denoting the process of judgment by a court of law. Like the poem's formality and understatement, the word achieves authority, moral and poetic.

(Natasha Trethewey's poem "Elegy for the Native Guards" is from her book "Native Guard." Houghton Mifflin. Copyright © 2006 by Natasha Trethewey.)

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