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...
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