The Poems

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Natasha Trethewey’s third book of poems, Native Guard, is dedicated to her African American mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, a social worker who was murdered by a former husband when the poet was nineteen years old. Trethewey’s white father is Canadian-born poet Eric Trethewey, author of five collections of poetry, who teaches at Hollins College in Virginia. Biracial marriages were illegal in Mississippi, where Trethewey was born, in Gulfport, in 1966, so her parents were married in Ohio. They divorced when she was six, but Trethewey retained her birth name, a decision that she believes her stepfather resented.

Trethewey’s first collection of poems, Domestic Work (2000), was selected by Rita Dove as winner of the inaugural Cave Canem poetry prize for the best collection of poems submitted by an African American poet. Several of the thirty-four poems in that book concern her maternal grandmother and her life and work in Mississippi beginning in the 1930’s. In her introduction, Dove praises the poems for their “muscular luminosity.” In the twenty-nine poems of her second collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), Trethewey creates the persona of a prostitute who is the daughter of a white father. She based her character on a 1912 photograph by E. J. Bellocq collected in Storyville Portraits (1971), photographs of prostitutes from New Orleans’s red-light district, which operated between 1897 and 1917.

Like Trethewey’s first two books, Native Guard is a slender collection, or more aptly “book,” for as she told one interviewer, “I like to think of myself as a poet who writes not collections of poems, but books of poems.” Many if not most poets assemble collections after the fact from work accumulated over some months or years. As one poet has put it, “Books of verse are not deliberately planned—they grow.” Trethewey by contrast prefers to think of her work as an “integral whole,” and she enjoys doing the research that informs many of her poems, including those that concern the volume’s namesake, the Louisiana Native Guards unit, which was mustered into service in the fall of 1862. As she explains in her notes at the end of the book, the unit became “the first officially sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army.”

Native Guard’s title poem comprises ten linked, free-form...

(The entire section is 984 words.)

Native Guard Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Mlinko, Ange. Review of Native Guard, by Natasha Trethewey. Poetry 191, no. 1 (October, 2007): 56-60. Reads Native Guard as following the Fichtean dialectical structure of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

Shipers, Carrie. Review of Native Guard, by Natasha Trethewey. Prairie Schooner 80, no. 4 (Winter, 2006). 199-201. Emphasizes the role of grief and mourning in Trethewey’s third book.

Trethewey, Natasha. “Inscriptive Restorations: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey.” Interview by Charles Henry Rowell. Callaloo 27, no. 4 (2004): 1022-1034. Rowell and Trethewey talk about the forgotten and invisible aspects of history and culture and Trethewey’s project of restoring lost memory through her poetry.

Trethewey, Natasha. “Interview: Natasha Trethewey on Facts, Photographs, and Loss.” Interview by Sara Kaplan. Fugue 32 (Winter/Spring, 2007): 66-74. Interview in a literary journal that also includes two poems by Trethewey.

Trethewey, Natasha. “An Interview with Natasha Trethewey.” Interview by Jill Petty. Callaloo 19, no. 2 (1996): 364-375. Trethewey discusses the role of photography in her work as the representation of absence, among other topics.

Trethewey, Natasha. “An Interview with Natasha Trethewey.” Interview by Pearl Amelia McHaney. Five Points 11, no. 3 (September, 2007): 96-115. Trethewey makes detailed remarks about history, poetry, and their place in her thoughts, in an interview conducted one month after she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Trethewey, Natasha. “Native Daughter: Questions for Natasha Trethewey.” Interview by Deborah Solomon. The New York Times, May 13, 2007, p. 15. Brief but suggestive question-and-answer session on Native Guard and some details of the poet’s life and craft.

Wojahn, David. “History Shaping Selves: Four Poets.” Southern Review 43, no. 1 (Winter, 2007): 218-231. Compares the representation of history in Trethewey’s work to its representation in the work of Major Jackson, David Rivard, and Rodney Jones.