Saturday, 13 June 2009

Loved words even at a young age

Natasha Trethewey

Mississippi poet Natasha Trethewey was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi, to Eric Trethewey (also a poet ) and Gwendolyn Grimmette Trethewey. Before Trethewey started grade school, her parents divorced, and she moved to Decatur, Georgia, with her mother. As a youth, Trethewey spent her summers with her grandmother in Mississippi and in New Orleans with her father.

She has always loved words and even at a young age spent much of her time in a library reading as many books as possible. When Trethewey was nineteen (1985), her mother passed away (Emory Report). After high school, Trethewey earned her Bachelor's degree at the University of Georgia in English and creative writing. She earned her Master's degree in English and creative writing at Hollins University, where her father is a professor of English and the author of three collections of poems. Later, she went to the University of Massachusetts from which she received her M.F.A. in poetry (Gale).

Throughout Trethwey's career, she has received many awards, including grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to continue her work on Bellocq's Ophelia, (poems based on her work as a graduate student about photographs of prostitutes in the 1900's in New Orleans). For "Storyville Diary" she won the Grolier Poetry Prize. In 1999, she was selected by Rita Dove to receive the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African American poet for Domestic Work , which was published in the fall of 2000 by Graywolf Press. In 2001, she received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and the Lillian Smith Award for poetry.

She received the prestigious Bunting fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She has received money from the Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund award. Other awards that Trethewey has received include the Margaret Walker Award for poetry, the Jessica Nobel-Maxwell Memorial Award for poetry, the Julia Peterkin Award at Converse College, and the Distinguished Young Alumna Award at the University of Massachusetts (Gale).

Trethewey's work has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines. She has published two collections of poetry: Domestic Work and Bellocq's Ophelia. Her current work in progress is called Native Guard and is also a collection of letter poems by black guardsmen who were once stationed at Gulfport, Mississippi. In addition to Trethewey's father Eric being a poet, her stepmother also has published collections of poetry (Emory Report). Trethewey taught as an assistant professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama before accepting her current position as an assistant professor of English, poetry, and creative writing at Emory University in Decatur, Georgia.

Some of her poems

Domestic Work, 1937

All week she's cleaned
someone else's house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper—
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she'd pull
the lid to--that look saying
Let's make a change, girl.
But Sunday mornings are hers—
church clothes starched
and hanging, a record spinning
on the console, the whole house
dancing. She raises the shades,
washes the rooms in light,
buckets of water, Octagon soap.
Cleanliness is next to godliness ...
Windows and doors flung wide,
curtains two-stepping
forward and back, neck bones
bumping in the pot, a choir
of clothes clapping on the line.
Nearer my God to Thee ...
She beats time on the rugs,
blows dust from the broom
like dandelion spores, each one
a wish for something better.


Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
you 'bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.
Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,
circling them just above water
and silver backs of minnows
flitting here then there between
the sun spots and the shadows.
This is how you hold the pole
to cast the line out straight.
Now put that worm on your hook,
throw it out and wait.
She sat spitting tobacco juice
into a coffee cup.
Hunkered down when she felt the bite,
jerked the pole straight up
reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back.
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
'cause one of its sides is black.
The other is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.


Here, the Mississippi carved
its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
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 dead stand up in stone, white

marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand
on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;

they must have seemed like catacombs,
in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,

candlelit, underground. I can see her
listening to shells explode, writing herself

into history, asking what is to become
of all the living things in this place?

This whole city is a grave. Every spring—
Pilgrimage—the living come to mingle

with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders
in the long hallways, listen all night

to their silence and indifference, relive
their dying on the green battlefield.

At the museum, we marvel at their clothes—
preserved under glass—so much smaller
than our own, as if those who wore them
were only children. We sleep in their beds,

the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped
in flowers—funereal—a blur

of petals against the river's gray.
The brochure in my room calls this

living history. The brass plate on the door reads
Prissy's Room. A window frames

the river's crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream,
the ghost of history lies down beside me,
rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

What's left is footage: the hours before
Camille, 1969—hurricane
parties, palm trees leaning
in the wind,
fronds blown back,

a woman's hair. Then after:
the vacant lots,
boats washed ashore, a swamp
where graves had been. I recall

how we huddled all night in our small house,
moving between rooms,
emptying pots filled with rain.

The next day, our house—
on its cinderblocks—seemed to float
in the flooded yard: no foundation

beneath us, nothing I could see
tying us to the land.
In the water, our reflection
when I bent to touch it.

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