“Theories of Time and Space” by Natasha Trethewey Summary
The speaker of Trethewey’s poem speaks directly to the reader, telling them that they can reach their destination by continuing on the same road they’re traveling, though they can never truly go “home” again. Continuing on their journey will mean venturing through unknown territory, even if they’ve traveled this way before. Nevertheless, the speaker encourages the reader to follow their, the speaker’s, directions down Mississippi State Highway 49.
During this trip, the mile markers passed are compared to ticks of a clock counting down the minutes of the reader’s life. The route will ultimately come to a “dead end” where the city of Gulfport meets the coast, the ropes and cables of the many shrimp boats appearing like “loose stitches / in a sky threatening rain.” Here, the speaker instructs the reader to cross the artificial beach that covers the original “mangrove swamp” and the “buried terrain of the past.”
On the far side of the beach is a dock where the listener will take a ferry to Ship Island. The speaker advises the reader to bring with them only one thing on this next part of their journey: a “tome,” or book, of “memory,” which contains “random blank pages.” Before boarding the boat, the reader will have their picture taken by an employee who will give the photograph to them when they return from the excursion as a record of who they were before they left.
As the first work of part 3, “Jubilee,” Natasha Trethewey’s “Theories of Time and Space” establishes the final section’s theme of meditations on the future. Trethewey uses the metaphor of a road trip—that most distinctly American form of travel—to make clear from the beginning that although “there’s go going home,” the journey is still worth taking. Unlike Jericho Brown’s poem and the many essays in part 1 associated with terrestrial and geographical aspects of African American roots and their legacy, Trethewey’s poem looks ahead to the writing of a new history of the Black experience. Trethewey seems to be saying that while revisiting the past, symbolized by the concept of “home,” is impossible, as long as one is up for the trip, the road forward is still open and the destination full of possibility.
The beach that sits atop the former mangrove swamp, the coast’s natural barrier to storms and erosion, represents Mississippi’s progress in “reclaiming” the shoreline and developing modern industries like commercial shrimping and tourism, though at the expense of the natural ecological balance. The mangrove swamps of the Gulf Coast are also mentioned in Jesmyn Ward’s essay in a similar context. Ward contrasts the run-down house where her father grew up with the mansions of the rich white people and their beachfront views, suggesting that the wetlands were “buried” for the purpose of developing valuable real estate, which highlights the region’s persistent racial inequality and exclusion. The increasing damage caused by the region’s annual tropical storms is exacerbated in part by the disappearance of its natural protections like the swamps, just as it is by neglect of critical civil infrastructure, as demonstrated by the...
(The entire section is 803 words.)