Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Natasha Trethewey: A Poet Laureate for our Time

(Editors note: My apologies for the unannounced several week hiatus. I am back and will be more consistent with my posts. TL)

For the time being, the poetry gods have smiled on the United States: we finally have a Poet Laureate who is at (or near--who knows how good she will get?) the peak of her powers. That she is a terrific poet (and from what I could tell of her in one ten minute conversation, probably at least as good of a human being) is a gift. And that she not only writes savory poetry, but is committed to (and actively engaged in) the teaching of it, is a blessing that we have not had in some recent Poets Laureate. I learned all of this about her (and more) attending her reading earlier this week at Stanford as part of the renowned Lane Lecture Series.

Trethewey, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, has a list of credentials, of course, as long as the stage is wide in the 500+ capacity (yet intimate) Zambrano Hall on the campus of Stanford. Her honors include, but are not limited to, Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Bunting and NEA fellowships, The Cave Canem Poetry Prize (for her first book, Domestic Work), a Pulitzer Prize (for her third book, Native Guard), and an impressive list of state and national writing awards, including her recent appointment as US Poet Laureate.

But, most importantly, her poetry is virtuosic. In Thrall, for example, her subject matter (exploration of her own interracial and complicated roots) is highly significant, being at once deeply personal (without making herself the center of a new confessionalism), and globally significant (without devolving into a dispassionate chronicle), pursuing events and narratives that have been painted over on both her family's and history's canvas, for the sake of protecting its status quo images.

"Taxonomy," for example, with the epigraph After a series of casta paintings by/Juan Rodriquez Juarez, c. 1715 begins "The canvas is a leaden sky/behind them, heavy/with words, gold letters inscribing/an equation of blood--"

On the sonic level, Trethewey's sonorous iambs frame a fresh vocabulary of the calculus of race with section titles that give the precise term for each child of several interracial unions: 1. DE ESPANOL Y DE INDIA PRODUCE MESTISO; 2. DE ESPANOL Y NEGRA PRODUCE MULATO; 3. DE ESPANOL Y MESTIZA PRODUCE CASTIZA. She writes "this plus this equals this--as if/a contract with nature, or/a museum label,/ethnographic, precise."

Add music and passion, and we could say the same for Trethewey's work: the result of a contract with the universe that brings her perfect-pitch voice to bear on score after score of skewed and sometimes hidden American stories--in order to bring them from their dim pages to our astonished and hungry ears.

I will have more to say about our new Poet Laureate in the days ahead. For now, I close with final lines from the ultimate poem in this collection: "Illumination." (My apologies for not being able to duplicate precisely the typography of indentation of every other line.)

So much is left

untold Between

the printed words and the self-conscious scrawl

between what is said and not

white space framing the story

the way the past unwritten

eludes us So much

is implication the afterimage

of measured syntax always there

ghosting the margins that words

their black-lined authority

do not cross Even

as they rise up to meet us

the white page hovers beneath

silent incendiary waiting

1 comment:

granddaddy said...

I shared a Natasha Trethewey reading just a week or so before she was announced as Poet Laureate at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. I enthusiastically affirm your observations about the welcome gifts she brings to this position. Her poetry is, indeed, "virtuosic", as you noted. both in its language and its entry into profoundly important themes. You did not say, though the lines you included demonstrate it very well, that for all its virtuosity and musicality and passion, it is also wondrously accessible. As is she! Her commitment to teaching poetry includes an openness to spend ten minutes talking with some guy in the renowned Stanford audience as well as some guy in the not so renowned Oklahoma audience. I just wish she spelled her last name in some way that didn't cause me such continuing trouble. T-R-E-T-H-E-W-E-Y.... T-R-E-T-H-E-W-E-Y.... T-R-E-T-H-E-W-E-Y.... I think I can I think I can I think I can....