Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Trethewey holds the Phillis Wheatley Chair in Poetry at Emory University and lives in Decatur, Georgia. Native Guard won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Various reviewers and interviewers have observed how frequently Trethewey introduces dates into her poems, sometimes in the opening lines, as in “The Southern Crescent,” sometimes in the titles, as in “Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971” or in the villanelle “King Cotton, 1907.” The latter is the first poem in the four-poem series “Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi,” which appears as the second piece in the second section of Native Guard. Moreover, each of the ten sonnets in “Native Guard” is dated, from “November 1862” to “1865.” The imagined first-person speaker, a literate former slave who keeps a journal and writes letters for the prisoners of war he guards, begins, “Truth be told, I do not want to forget/ anything of my former life: the landscape’s/ song of bondage—dirge in the river’s throat.” The last sonnet in the sequence reflects on the massacre of black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in the spring of 1864 by troops under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest among the “things which must be accounted for” at the war’s end. Trethewey’s keen ear is apparent in the assonant sounds of the final lines, which link the poem to its beginning: “Beneath battlefields, green again,/ the dead molder—a scaffolding of bone/ we tread upon, forgetting. Truth be told.” The lines also remind readers of the way in which certain events tend to get lost in the stream of history.