November 28, 2007

Native Guard

Print More

“Today the ants are busy/ beside my front steps, weaving/ in and out of the hill they’re building./ I watch them emerge and –
like everything I’ve forgotten – disappear/ into the subterranean – a world/ made by displacement. In the cemetery/ last June, I circled, lost –“
In her most recent collection of poetry, Native Guard, (recipient of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry), Natasha Trethewey explores death, God, the experience of the black southerner across multiple generations, dating back to just before the civil war, and the unrelenting march of history. Trethewey is interested in death, and in her collection, reflects on death as both a cycle of life and a cycle of history. Within the cycle of life, an individual existence leaves no impact on nature. Within in the cycle of history too, lives are eventually erased — human memory can only reach so far. Eventually everything is washed away (she actually employs this ‘washing away’ metaphor subtly in several poems).
Trethewey also reflects on the divine – and in doing so, has trouble reconciling the existence of God, with the existence of grief, questioning how the two can co-exist. She also explores human relations with God, and determines that what is important in understanding human religion is the context — what people ask of God when they are sad or suffering is radically different from their relationship to Him at any other time.
Finally, and most often, Trethewey focuses on the black experience in the south. Mostly, she offers narrative experiences, inviting the reader to judge them for him or herself. However, she is adamant about spreading out the blame for the ingrained southern racism and segregation of the early 1900s. In “Southern History,” she includes even African-Americans themselves — implicit in their silence.
Trethewey’s language is simple and straightforward throughout the collection — not what you would call classic, beautiful poetry. Her originality lies in her experiments with form and structure. In the modernist tradition, Trethewey has branched away from traditional forms, and instead uses new techniques, like repeating the last line of the previous stanza in the first of the next, or experimenting with forms such as the ghazal, a traditional form of ancient Arabic poetry, that has been recently revived. She also uses structure to visually underscore the text, as in the stanzas quoted above (from a poem entitled “Monument” — my personal favorite).
Contrary to expectations, Trethewey’s simplicity of language does not make her poetry easy to read. Quite the opposite in fact, her narratives sometime seem disjointed and esoteric, and requires some attention. However, time and effort is prerequisite for reading good poetry and Trethewey’s collection is certainly good poetry. I believe the poetry-savvy would very much enjoy Trethewey’s work. Even as a graduate of English 207: Modern Poetry (good class by the way, y’all should check it out), I do not at all consider myself among the poetry-savvy, but I enjoyed working through and looking in-depth at Trethewey’s work. She has rare and unique insights, and an interesting outlook on the world, to offer, both well worth the time it takes to unravel her stories.