(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
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
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Natasha Trethewey: A Poet Laureate for our Time
was born in the Midwest, grew up in New Mexico, and has lived in the San Francisco bay area for over a decade. Terry has published in numerous literary journals, including Best New Poets 2012, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, New Millennium Writings, and The Comstock Review. His work has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. He is the winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His chapbook, Altar Call, was a winner in the the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, and appears in the Anthology, Diesel. His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the 2012 Copperdome Poetry Chapbook Contest, and is available from Southeast Missouri State University Press. His first full-length collection of poems, In This Room (CW Books, 2016), is now available, and his second, Dharma Rain, was released by Saint Julian Press in October of 2016. Terry is a 2008 poetry MFA graduate of New England College, an assistant editor at Trio House Press, and a free-lance poetry consultant. For more information about him and his work see www.terrylucas.com