Natasha Trethewey often writes of the intersection of her personal and family history with public history. Her themes include the exploration of dichotomies such as that of insider and outsider, physical rootedness and psychological estrangement, memory and forgetting. Because of her background, she often examines the significance of racial identity with a focus on the personal and social questions that arise from racial categorization. She is also interested in recovering the stories of those who have been overlooked in history. Conscious of form, she skillfully uses stanza patterns and rhyme as well as free verse.
The title of Domestic Work, which also serves as the title of part 2 of the collection, indicates the overall theme. In general, it refers to the many ordinary jobs or duties that help a society or a family run smoothly but that are often overlooked. Most of the poems feature strong imagery. In part 2, dedicated to Trethewey’s maternal grandmother, poems explore the various jobs open to an African American woman of the mid-twentieth century: housekeeper, elevator operator, hair stylist, factory seamstress, and self-employed seamstress. Some poems describe the personal work of maintaining a marriage and raising a child. In an interview in Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art (September, 2007), Trethewey says that in this early work, she “was already, by using dates or other historical events within the poems, working to blend personal or family stories with collective history.” This subject, she realizes, is a “long term obsession” of hers.
Parts 3 and 4 relate to Trethewey’s childhood and her parents. “White Lies,” “Microscope,” and “Saturday Matinee” consider Trethewey’s feelings about her biracial identity. In “White Lies,” the speaker allows a white classmate to assume that she too is white. When her mother discovers this lie, she washes out her mouth with, ironically, Ivory soap, telling her that this will clean her and her lying tongue. The daughter swallows the soap, believing that it will make her “ivory” from the inside out.
The final poem of the volume, “Limen,” was selected for The Best American Poetry 2000. The word “limen” comes from the Latin word meaning “threshold.” In the poem, the insistent knocking of a woodpecker on a catalpa tree becomes for Trethewey “. . . a door knocker/ to the cluttered house of memory . . . ,” and she imagines she sees her mother again, hanging sheets on a clothesline. This experience sums up the theme of several poems in the collection: the sense of being on the boundary of two worlds. In “Limen,” the boundary could be the line between the present world and memory or between reality and imagination.
Bellocq’s Ophelia, named a notable book by the American Library Association in 2003, centers on the life of Ophelia, a New Orleans prostitute of the early twentieth century. Ophelia tells her story in verse letters to a former teacher and in diary entries, which are a free-verse sonnet sequence. She traces her growth from someone who is an object for others to one who asserts control in her own life. Trethewey’s character was inspired by the historical photographs of E. J. Bellocq, who...
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