My Bondage, My Freedom
By Natasha Trethewey
Houghton Mifflin. 51 pp. $22
The frontispiece of Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard informs me she was born in Gulfport, Miss., that her mother was black and her father white. Reasonable deduction (assuming the "I" of the poems is the poet) tells me that, in her formative years, issues pertaining to her biracial heritage were exacerbated by Mississippi's legacy of oppression -- its dark, buried history. In a region struggling to confront its past, how was a young poet supposed to learn to accept who she was?
Trethewey's personal dilemma must have been awkward, full of tangled emotions and memorable embarrassments. It's the kind of background that has humbled many people into silence. And yet, for the purposes of literature, aren't these kinds of growing pains priceless? We should probably envy this poet's peculiar destiny. Not only has Trethewey chosen speech rather than silence, she has chosen to express herself in verse. Given her material, she could easily write essays or a memoir. But she has a genuine gift for verse forms, and the depth of her engagement in language marks her as a true poet.
In Native Guard, Trethewey traces the buried history of the South to the point where her personal narrative begins. "In 1965, my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;/they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi," begins a ghazal (a poem in two-line stanzas linked by a rhyme scheme) titled "Miscegenation." "My Mother Dreams of Another Country" jumps ahead to Trethewey's birth year and depicts her mother's distress: "This is 1966 -- she is married to a white man --/and there are more names for what grows inside her./It is enough to worry about words like mongrel /and the infertility of mules and mulattoes ."
The title poem is a 10-sonnet sequence in which the last line of each sonnet becomes a variant of the subsequent sonnet's opening line, creating a lovely, wreathlike effect. The graceful form conceals a gritty subject. "Native Guard" is a first-person narrative of an unnamed ex-slave who has joined the Union army to serve in an all-black regiment. The lines have a stately, chiming perfection. The circular form mirrors the bizarre circularity of circumstance that finds the narrator -- once a slave -- now guarding Confederates who have been captured and imprisoned inside the Union fort at Ship Island, Miss. The narrator compares his life in bondage to his life as a military officer, guarding the fallen rebels:
I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory -- flawed, changeful -- that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave.
For the slave, having a master sharpens
the bend into work, the way the sergeant
moves us now to perfect battalion drill,
Trethewey doesn't try to reproduce the way this character would actually speak. Whereas many poets would have spiced his monologue with dialect, she doesn't. Though a former slave, he is literate; he writes letters for his fellow soldiers. "I listen, put down in ink what I know/they labor to say between silences." Trethewey gives her narrator a literary voice -- the voice of a 19th-century writer practiced in the diction and oratory of his time, of Frederick Douglass's masterful autobiographies, a voice that echoes the rhythms of great Western poetry.
Trethewey has a gift for squeezing the contradictions of the South into very tightly controlled lines. A certain staid, formal approach is both her strength and the only possible grounds I have to criticize her poetry. Native Guard is a small book, containing mostly short poems, a few of which read like exercises. When poets find their voices, form and content intermesh seamlessly. One can still see Trethewey's technique and feel the influence of poetry workshops. One feels a bit let down when a poem sets up an interesting emotional crisis, then resolves it almost too quickly. One feels at times as though her poems are succinct for the sake of making them work, rather than fulfilling either the poet's memory of her experience or the reader's heightened expectations.
Trethewey's style is reserved, even cautious, though her subjects are emotionally charged, even violent. This creates an interesting dichotomy, especially in poems such as "Pastoral" with its touchy image of Trethewey confronting the great white Southern poets -- Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and others -- while in blackface. Though this is her third book, Trethewey is still perfecting her voice and may have only scratched the surface of her remarkable talent. ·
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic in Charleston, S.C.