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TUE MAY 27, 2014






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A thank you to the “PLOTUS”

— Poet Laureate

Natasha Trethewey

Commentary by Black Kos Editor Denise Oliver-Velez


In 2012, Natasha Trethewey was appointed as State Poet Laureate of Mississippi and also   became the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate. In 2013, she was appointed for a second term.

In June, a new poet laureate will be appointed, but before Trethewey leaves, I wanted to take a moment to say “thank you”.

Thank you for your poetry and prose.

Thank you for representing so much of what we as women, as black women, as Americans face in today’s world.

Thank you for weaving so much history into what you write.

Thank you for exploring the complexities of race, racism and identity and oppression.

Thank you for portraying those who are often forgotten.

Trethaway is a daughter of the south.

Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, on April 26, 1966, Confederate Memorial Day, to Eric Trethewey and Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, who were married illegally at the time of her birth, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws with Loving v. Virginia. Her birth certificate noted the race of her mother as “colored”, and the race of her father as “Canadian”

The American Civil War makes frequent appearances in her work. Born on Confederate Memorial Day—exactly 100 years afterwards—Trethewey explains that she could not have “escaped learning about the Civil War and what it represented”, and that it had fascinated her since childhood. For example, Native Guard tells the story of the Louisiana Native Guards, an all-black regiment in the Union Army, composed mainly of former slaves who enlisted, that guarded the Confederate prisoners of war.

We have just celebrated another memorial day, and yesterday I turned to Tretheway’s workNative Guard.

Through elegiac verse that honors her mother and tells of her own fraught childhood, Natasha Trethewey confronts the racial legacy of her native Deep South — where one of the first black regiments, the Louisiana Native Guards, was called into service during the Civil War. Trethewey’s resonant and beguiling collection is a haunting conversation between personal experience and national history.

Elegy for the Native Guards

The Daughters of the Confederacy
has placed a plaque here, at the fort’s entrance—
each Confederate soldier’s name raised hard
in bronze; no names carved for the Native Guards—
2nd Regiment, Union men, black phalanx.
What is monument to their legacy?

We have had a lot of heated discussion recently about women and violence. Tretheway’s life is no exception to what so many women have been affected by. Her mother was murdered by her ex-husband Joel Grimmette.

Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, was killed by her ex-husband on June 5, 1985. At the time of her death, Turnbough was director of personnel for DeKalb County Health Department. “My mother was an educated woman, someone with all the resources at her disposal to escape a violent marriage, and yet even she could not get away,” Trethewey said. The patriarchal nature of society at the time put abused women at risk and may have sealed Turnbough’s fate. “There were no ways for my mother to hide, and yet she did everything she could to hide.”The poet read from a 13-page narrative, handwritten by her mother and found in her briefcase the morning of her murder. “You might not think such a voice is appropriate for a celebratory event, but I believe that to hear her in her own words is to celebrate the ongoing work of the people here at the center to make a difference in the lives of women,” Trethewey said before reading. The calmly written, focused narrative foreshadowed her daughter’s gift for language:

“I always knew that I would get out of my marriage. It was one of these things that never should have happened. The reason it did was a combination of emotional blackmail and physical threats and intimidation. Since he always said that he wasn’t happy either, I assumed that we would back out gracefully when our son left for college. So on each of his birthdays, I counted off one more year. I got down to eight.”

With the undulating inflection she uses when reciting her poetry, Trethewey continued reading her mother’s words and noted, “It is perhaps in the wake of those things that I must have become a writer, believing in the power of a woman’s voice, the power to be heard, to have the kind of agency that might change things.”

About those who are forgotten, in the NY Times announcement of her initial appointment Charles McGrath wrote:

Ms. Trethewey’s great theme is memory, and in particular the way private recollection and public history sometimes intersect but more often diverge. “The ghost of history lies down beside me,” she writes in one of her poems, “rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.”She has devoted much of her career to resurrecting or recreating the histories of people who don’t often make it into poetry books. Her first volume, “Domestic Work” (2000), is about just what the title says: black maids, washerwomen, factory workers. One of the poems begins:

“The eyes of eight women

I don’t know

stare out of this photograph

saying remember.”

Our lives are often ironic. Tretheway has risen to the heights of achievement, yet while she was being awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her “Native Guard”, her  younger brother was being arrested on drug charges.


For U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, the visit to the King County Juvenile Detention Center brought back vivid memories of visiting her brother in jail after he was convicted of a drug offense. Watch her read her poem “Benediction” about the day he was released from prison.

Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was published in 2012.

Beyond Katrina is poet Natasha Trethewey’s very personal profile of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and of the people there whose lives were forever changed by hurricane Katrina.Trethewey spent her childhood in Gulfport, where much of her mother’s extended family, including her younger brother, still lives. As she worked to understand the devastation that followed the hurricane, Trethewey found inspiration in Robert Penn Warren’s book Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, in which he spoke with southerners about race in the wake of the Brown decision, capturing an event of wide impact from multiple points of view. Weaving her own memories with the experiences of family, friends, and neighbors, Trethewey traces the erosion of local culture and the rising economic dependence on tourism and casinos. She chronicles decades of wetland development that exacerbated the destruction and portrays a Gulf Coast whose citizens—particularly African Americans—were on the margins of American life well before the storm hit.

So, thank you Natasha Trethewey. But not good-bye. I’m reading Thrall, and looking forward to a wealth of insights from your pen in the years to come.

(note: Trethewey was one of the poets launched by the Dark Room Collective – see story below)