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Recommendation: Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey’s book Native Guard (2007) is a collection of poems that very tightly document history.  Throughout my reading this book, I felt like I was interacting with a very dense skeleton.  A lot of her poems are easily seen as ghost-like because they talk about death, abuse, war, and other past events that prompt despair.  But the framework of her poetry starkly contrasts the transparent and fleeting qualities of a ghost.  Trethewey is truly skilled in form, often employing couplets or tercets with gentle rhymes laced through, echoing her representation of the under-the-wire yet undeniable remnants of history that survive and/or taper off.  I strongly recommend that everyone look at her poem “Myth,” in which she brilliantly presents both a discussion and formal representation of (un)consciousness, repetition, containment, and escape.  It’s a poem I feel would be more valuable to read on one’s own before reading about it, so I’ll discuss others.

“Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971,” as the title suggests, questions the selectivity of what is preserved in a photograph.  This poem is written in tercets with a subtle rhyme scheme, ABA CBC DBD EBE FBF, retaining about the same amount of consistency as I think the poem suggests a photograph might.  Within the poem, she brings in images of “food rotting / in the refrigerator” (5-6), a “landscape [that] glistens beneath a glaze / of ice” (7-8), and “iced trees, each leaf in its glassy case” (10).  This cold and still preservation of different artifacts fascinates me with the strangeness of what/how we can and/or choose to preserve.

The title section (or long poem?) pays tribute to the African American soldiers in the Civil War.  Trethewey puts forth touching sonnet-memories of African American soldiers in the Civil War.  I think this section is especially gripping because it makes you remember an essential group of people in this war that is probably too often associated with but a few key white players.  These poems are especially interesting because they recreate the same ideas she conveys in her other poems (like “Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971”) that have completely different speakers and settings.  For example, in the “August 1864” section of “Native Guard,” she writes,

“…Tending the gardens,
I thought only to study live things, thought
Never to know so much about the dead.
Now I tend Ship Island graves, mounds like dunes
that shift and disappear.  I record names,
send home simple notes…” (6-11)

“…I’m told
it’s best to spare most detail, but I know
there are things which must be accounted for” (12-14).

I’m also attracted to how Trethewey poses the effects of human interactions.  Like the sometimes seemingly obscure way history is preserved, the connections we form and sever with people open and close unique possibilities.  Trethewey conveys how effortlessly mistakes may flow from order, like when the speaker of “Letter” “dash[es] a note to a friend” (1), mentioning an errand, “except / that [the speaker] write[s] errant, a slip between letters” (3-4).  The speaker creatively imagines the shapes of the speaker’s handwriting into things like “the O / my friend’s mouth will make when she sees / my letter in her box” (7-9).  Leaving with a chilling message, the speaker reminds us “how suddenly / a simple errand, a letter-everything-can go wrong” (15-16).

The paradox of writing a recommendation for this book is that I’m trying to celebrate the way it remembers detail and history that others have forgotten, but I struggle to accurately recreate those qualities of her poetry to you.  Her genius is simply too intricate and varied to convey in this recommendation, so if any of the above qualities appeal to you, I can’t see you being sorry with exploring this book.


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