If you think you don’t like poetry, I urge you to pick up Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey. If you think poetry is difficult to understand, if you think it is boring, if you think it is outdated, if you think it is just not for you, please, go to the store and buy Native Guard. Read it on your ereader, get it at the library. I’ll even lend you my copy.
This is easily one of the most accessible, moving books of poetry I’ve read. It’s easy to see why it won the Pulitzer and why so many people count it among its favorites. Trethewey does well what so many people only try to do. Her poetry is imbued with a sense of history, both the personal and the national, that informs every line and subject.
The title, Native Guard, refers to the militias of black troops who exchanged service in the Confederate army for their freedom. Their stories have been largely untold in history books and in discussions of the Civil War, at monuments, in text books. The native guards become the symbol for untold histories: stories that are deliberately forgotten and kept hidden.
Native Guard is divided into three sections. The first section of poems are about the speaker’s mother, the second about the history of Mississippi, and the third, and strongest, is the convergence of the private, personal history with the public. It is where the history of the place informs the history of the self and it is perfect. I don’t think I get to say that very often, not with fiction, not with non-fiction, not with poetry. I’m fairly certain that this collection, but most of all the third section, is perfect. I get chills just thinking about the epigraphs.
I read this collection twice in one day. I finished it and went straight back to the beginning to start it again, but there was one poem that I read again and again:
“My Mother Dreams Another Country”
Already the words are changing. She is changing
from colored to negro, black still years ahead.
This is 1966 – she is married to a white man –
and there are names for what grows inside her.
It is enough to worry about words like mongrel
and the infertility of mules and mulattoes
while flipping through a book of baby names.
She has come home to wait out the long months,
her room unchanged since she’s been gone:
dolls winking down from every shelf — all of them
white. Every day she is flanked by the rituals of superstition,
and there is a name she will learn for this too:
maternal impression — the shape, like an unknown
country, marking the back of the newborn’s thigh.
For now, women tell her to clear her head, to steady her hands
or she’ll gray a lock of the child’s hair wherever
she worries her own, imprint somewhere on the outline
of a thing she craves too much. They tell her
to stanch her cravings by eating dirt. All spring
she has sat on her hands, her fingers numb. For a while
each day, she can’t feel anything she touches: the arbor
out back — the landscape’s green tangle; the molehill
of her own swelling. Here — outside the city limits —
cars speed by, clouds of red dust in their wake.
She breathes it in — Mississippi — then drifts towards sleep,
thinking of someplace she’s never been. Late,
Mississippi is a dark backdrop bearing down
on the windows of her room. On the TV in the corner,
the station signs off, broadcasting its nightly salutation:
the waving Stars and Stripes, our national anthem.
This review is part of the Read More/Blog More Poetry Event hosted by myself and Kelly of The Written World. If you participated today, you can find the Mr. Linky sign up on Kelly’s blog here. If you’re interested in participating this month or in the future, you can find out more about the project here.