In her latest collection, poet Natasha Trethewey explicitly calls herself black, but engages in elaborate dialogs with her white father. This dichotomy drives much of her prior work, and she continues to explore what may be America’s most important question in the Twenty-First Century: when you have more than one heritage, how do you decide which one you are? Just as important, how do you decide which one you are not?
Modern sociology asserts that race has less to do with skin color, and more to do with how society treats us. Trethewey delves into that with questions about, for instance, how people made patronizing assumptions about a black mother walking a fair-skinned daughter, or the unstated assumptions of Monticello tour guides. These assumptions start to permeate our lives, sometimes against our will:
I did not know then the subtext
of our story, that my father could imagine
Jefferson’s words made flesh in my flesh—
the improvement of the blacks in body
and mind, in the first instance of their mixture
with the whites—or that my father could believe
he’d made me better.
Trethewey follows two parallel tracks in this exploration. Many of her poems draw their inspiration from classic art on themes of race and admixture. The above quote, for instance, begins with Jefferson’s official portrait, hanging at Monticello, and transitions to the present, when father and daughter visit the historic site. Not all the poems so forthrightly address how the past impacts the present; you may have to tease it out, but it’s still there:
Emblematic in paint, a signifier of the body’s lacuna,
the black leg is at once a grafted narrative,
a redacted line of text, and in this scene a dark stocking
pulled above the knee...
...One man always
low, in a grave or on the ground, the other
up high, closer to heaven; one man always diseased,
the other a body in service, plundered.
(“Miracle of the Black Leg”)
Thus a recurrent theme of religious art, thankfully now abandoned—the dead negro’s leg transplanted onto a sick white man, like the dark body were an old Studebaker in a salvage lot—speaks to the present, when we still treat some people as resources to enrich others. Though Trethewey’s current commentary is largely implicit, such grim acknowledgments linger under much of her verse, a darkly ironic wink from poet to audience.
Trethewey’s artistic unpacking moves from medieval altarpieces, as above, through post-Renaissance artists like Diego Velazquez and his slave, Juan de Pareja, to a relative modern like George Fuller. (Trethewey does not reproduce the art here; Google Images is good for that.) Her ekphrastic examinations don’t much comment on themes of race, though. She prefers to let the work itself reveal the artists’ unacknowledged assumptions.
But art is a form of memory, and memory builds the heart of identity. Trethewey refuses to get mired in the past; instead, she always uses the past to comment on the present. Because we inherit a mixed society, born of mingled heritages, we always exist outside ourselves, commenting. Trethewey embodies that in a specific way, since she considers herself black, but her only surviving parent is white.
Perhaps, for Trethewey, art serves as the frame story for the conversation with her father that moves throughout this collection. Sometimes she literally speaks with her father; other times her father serves as shorthand for the less obvious half of her bloodline. Yet where such discussion could turn bitter (consider Amiri Baraka’s poems about his white first wife), Trethewey maintains both an affection and a closeness that channels Elizabeth Bishop:
To see a flash of silver—
pale undersides of the maple leaves
catching light—quick movement
at the edge of thought,
is to be pulled back
to that morning, to the river it flashes still:
a single fish
breaking the water’s surface...
Trethewey indulges a few of the contrivances that have become almost mandatory in current poetry: irregular left margins, sometimes sawtoothed or gently scalloped, sometimes jagged as lightning; in-line lacunae in place of punctuation. But she eschews the virtuosic flourishes that confound wider audiences. Trethewey’s verse is remarkably lucid and forthright, without losing the insight we associate with the word “poetry.”
This collection asks hard questions, and provides no facile answers. But Trethewey’s words stick with us because we ourselves are mixed—perhaps not in such obvious and literal ways, but nevertheless. Her verse causes profound, moving disquiet because we can look at it and recognize ourselves.