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.
Winner of the 2020 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize
Longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Poetry
“[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 bears witness to the daily urgencies of black existence, capturing in her lines the poignant music of hope and persistence. The pleasure of rediscovering a career’s worth of Trethewey’s exquisite and best-known work alongside her newest and most heart-wrenchingly personal is immense. It also reveals how keenly all of us are shaped by loss, and how much America, too, has been forged by the ever-present shard of grief."—Tracy K. Smith, O Magazine
"Standing as a pivotal monument to the career of one of America’s greatest living poets, these new and collected poems are a must-have for fans of poetry. Here, the reader is privy to some of the most compelling poems that Trethewey has produced during her career as well as new poems that have been inspired by looking at her work in this context. An incredibly moving collection that illuminates a life’s work in poetry."—The Root, "Best Books in 2018"
"Natasha Trethewey’s Monument is a glorious example of what results when one listens — and writes — brilliantly. Trethewey blends a distinctive voice with striking images and perspectives. Those who are new to her work will marvel at her ability to address difficult subjects — slavery, the challenges of mixed-race families and the murder of her mother — with precision and compassion. These pages clearly demonstrate why Trethewey, whose honors include the Pulitzer Prize and two terms as poet laureate of the United States, is one of our preeminent poets. They also remind us that her work is loved because she refuses to forget those who’ve been lost and the struggles of those who remain." —Elizabeth Lund,The Washington Post
"The Mississippi-born poet Natasha Trethewey has an exalted résumé...but her poems are earthy; they fly close to the ground...Trethewey pivots knowingly, in her poetry, between hard times and good ones. The delicate branches of her verse run you along a harrowing borderline of substance and illusion...[Trethewey has an] insistent intellect and [a] gift for turning over rich soil...The human details in Trethewey’s work — those crabs, that music, those cracked palms — are like the small feathers that give contour to a bird’s wing. Monument is a major book, and in her best poems this poet soars."—Dwight Garner, New York Times
“Deftly woven…both expansive and intimate…the twenty years’ worth of poetry presented in Monument feels incredibly timely. Trethewey flings open the door…invites us to commune with her through some of the hardest truths of both her life and this country’s history.” –Guernica
“This collection of old and new poems by the former poet laureate of the United States includes Trethewey’s powerful reflections on the way our nation contends with its diversity and memorializes its past. Think you’re not a poetry person? Think again. Trethewey’s verse is as accessible as it is brilliant.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
"The arrival of Monument is perfectly timed, or specific to this moment...what stands out beyond that is how many ways Trethewey finds to revisit and restructure history: her own, but also the histories of black people in America. The book’s title is a tribute to many things, both the immovability of America’s obsession with monuments and the task of building and rebuilding one’s self in an attempt to obscure grief. Her use of history as a driving force behind her poetry and as a nudge toward enlightenment — for herself and others — feels rooted in a type of empathy. Throughout this vast catalog of work, teeming with references to specific dates or old photos, Trethewey doesn’t shame readers for what they don’t know. Instead, she invites them to learn alongside her...this is a black woman who has committed an entire life and career to holding a country accountable, despite the weight of her own grief." —Hanif Abdurraqib, Buzzfeed
“For poets, she’ll be remembered for her deft use of subtlety, for her use of forms that make ironic the subjects they hold, for her very interesting way of interweaving personal history and public history — their impact on each other — in a single book. And for critics and other readers, I think she’ll be remembered for the ways that the poems are all-out acts of resistance and anger. There always seems to me something seething between the lines of every Natasha Trethewey poem, which is part of what makes her work so admirable and so completely impossible to imitate.” —Jericho Brown
"Trethewey’s book—her first retrospective collection—is a literary edifice that painstakingly, heartbreakingly, and victoriously memorializes those deemed unworthy of citation in academic syllabi or among the nation’s public statuary. It’s a marker in America’s conversation on race and gender. More intimately, it’s a Mississippi-soaked, multivoiced remembrance of Trethewey’s departed parents. While the collection spans work over an 18-year period, it stays in earnest conversation with today’s fervent headlines...Monument is the literary activism of the archivist, the social justice work of the painstaking historian-turned-poet. After reading this volume, it’s clear why her work is monumental—this book is a must-read for people interested in where America has been, where it’s headed, and how to traverse the crossroads of the country’s literature while also perhaps saving their soul at the beginning of this turbulent century."—Tyehimba Jess, Poetry Foundation
“We have seen, over a very few years, the ways language and words can so bitterly divide us. The very fact that a poet laureate can exist at all seems an act of hope -- is there one writer who could possibly represent this whole country? Natasha Trethewey was a two-term laureate, and her poetry seems to fit that description, precise in word choice but wide in subject and historical memory. Her new collection is called Monument, and that's what it feels like in some ways— patriotic, brave, honest—with a power that feels like some stanzas could slash you to ribbons.”—NPR
"Her exquisite and brutal lyricism as well as her commitment to truth makes Trethewey one of the most important American poets of our time...Her new book, Monument, is...a vibrant and timely book, deeply aware of our nation’s chaotic moment and its historical resonances...Trethewey is a tremendously empathic and enthusiastic force in our nation’s bleak period. Her words settle with profound gravity."—Paris Review
"Natasha Trethewey’s first selected volume of poems is the opposite of what her title suggests. This is no freeze framing of the past into bronze. Here instead in 83 remarkable poems lives history and memory as a wound one cannot heal, only tend with love. Trethewey powerfully conjures her late mother, breathes life into people erased in plain sight. Photographic subjects glossed but not captured. Domestic life watched but not seen. Southern history in all its hypocrisy. Raised in Mississippi the child of a black mother and a white fat...
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