Two-time U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey’s new and selected poems, drawing upon Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, Congregation, and Thrall, while also including new work written over the last decade.
“[Trethewey’s poems] dig beneath the surface of history—personal or communal, from childhood or from a century ago—to explore the human struggles that we all face.” —James H. Billington, 13th Librarian of Congress
Layering joy and urgent defiance—against physical and cultural erasure, against white supremacy whether intangible or graven in stone—Trethewey’s work gives pedestal and witness to unsung icons. Monument, Trethewey’s first retrospective, draws together verse that delineates the stories of working class African American women, a mixed-race prostitute, one of the first black Civil War regiments, mestizo and mulatto figures in Casta paintings, Gulf coast victims of Katrina. Through the collection, inlaid and inextricable, winds the poet’s own family history of trauma and loss, resilience and love.
In this setting, each section, each poem drawn from an “opus of classics both elegant and necessary,”* weaves and interlocks with those that come before and those that follow. As a whole, Monument casts new light on the trauma of our national wounds, our shared history. This is a poet’s remarkable labor to source evidence, persistence, and strength from the past in order to change the very foundation of the vocabulary we use to speak about race, gender, and our collective future.
*Academy of American Poets’ chancellor Marilyn Nelson
Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath
Do not hang your head or clench your fists
when even your friend, after hearing the story,
says, My mother would never put up with that.
Fight the urge to rattle off statistics: that,
more often, a woman who chooses to leave
is then murdered. The hundredth time
your father says, But she hated violence,
why would she marry a guy like that? ?— ?
don’t waste your breath explaining, again,
how abusers wait, are patient, that they
don’t beat you on the first date, sometimes
not even the first few years of a marriage.
Keep an impassive face whenever you hear
Stand by Your Man, and let go your rage
when you recall those words were advice
given your mother. Try to forget the first
trial, before she was dead, when the charge
was only attempted murder; don’t belabor
the thinking or the sentence that allowed
her ex-husband’s release a year later, or
the juror who said, It’s a domestic issue ?— ?
they should work it out themselves. Just
breathe when, after you read your poems
about grief, a woman asks, Do you think
your mother was weak for men? Learn
to ignore subtext. Imagine a thought-
cloud above your head, dark and heavy
with the words you cannot say; let silence
rain down. Remember you were told,
by your famous professor, that you should
write about something else, unburden
yourself of the death of your mother and
just pour your heart out in the poems.
Ask yourself what’s in your heart, that
reliquary ?— ?blood locket and seedbed ?— ?and
contend with what it means, the folk saying
you learned from a Korean poet in Seoul:
that one does not bury the mother’s body
in the ground but in the chest, or ?— ?like you ?— ?
you carry her corpse on your back.
I from DOMESTIC WORK
All day I’ve listened to the industry
of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree
just outside my window. Hard at his task,
his body is a hinge, a door knocker
to the cluttered house of memory in which
I can almost see my mother’s face.
She is there, again, beyond the tree,
its slender pods and heart-shaped leaves,
hanging wet sheets on the line ?— ?each one
a thin white screen between us. So insistent
is this woodpecker, I’m sure he must be
looking for something else ?— ?not simply
the beetles and grubs inside, but some other gift
the tree might hold. All day he’s been at work,
tireless, making the green hearts flutter.
Early Evening, Frankfort, Kentucky
It is 1965. I am not yet born, only
a fullness beneath the Empire waist
of my mother’s blue dress.
The ruffles at her neck are waves
of light in my father’s eyes. He carries
a slim volume, leather-bound, poems
to read as they walk. The long road
past the college, through town,
rises and falls before them,
the blue hills shimmering at twilight.
The stacks at the distillery exhale,
and my parents breathe evening air
heady and sweet as Kentucky bourbon.
They are young and full of laughter,
the sounds in my mother’s throat
rippling down into my blood.
My mother, who will not reach
forty-one, steps into the middle
of a field, lies down among clover
and sweet grass, right here, right now ?— ?
dead center of her life.
Before the picture man comes
Mama and I spend the morning
cleaning the family room. She hums
Motown, doles out chores, a warning ?— ?
He has no legs, she says. Don’t stare.
I’m first to the door when he rings.
My father and uncle lift his chair
onto the porch, arrange his things
near the place his feet would be.
He poses our only portrait ?— ?my father
sitting, Mama beside him, and me
in between. I watch him bother
the space for knees, shins, scratching air
as ?— ?years later ?— ?I’d itch for what’s not there.
“Trethewey’s great theme is memory, and in particular the way private recollection and public history sometimes intersect but more often diverge.” —The New York Times
“Her work raises one's conscience with the truths inherent in simple word combinations . . . and the care taken in ordering the pieces leads the reader from one poem to the next in graceful order." —Christian Science Monitor
“Trethewey’s writing mines the cavernous isolation, brutality, and resilience of African American history, tracing its subterranean echoes to today.” —New Yorker
“Her poetry reminds us to strive to use language in service of a thoughtful democracy.” —Huffington Post
“The depth of her engagement in language marks her as a true poet.” —Washington Post
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