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Recommendation – “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” Natasha Trethewey

Trethewey’s Native Guard has already been recommended, so I wanted to shed light on another of her collections, Bellocq’s Ophelia.  This collection is extremely imaginative – based on a series of photographs by E.J. Bellocq of New Orleans prostitutes in the Storyville red light district, Trethewey creates the fictional life of Ophelia, a very light-skinned black woman who left home and tried looking for work in New Orleans.  The bulk of Bellocq’s Ophelia is a series of letter poems directed from Ophelia to her friend Constance.

What’s really jarring about the collection is the depth of character and story Trethewey creates.  Through Ophelia’s letters, readers learn of the awkwardness of her beginnings as a prostitute, the detachment she feels, and the relationship she builds with Bellocq, a photographer who comes in to take her and the other girls’ pictures.

Trethewey’s verses are quite prose-like and straightforward, but Ophelia’s letters are deceptively simple, weaving in thoughts of confusion and sadness through her retelling of her days to Constance.  In “Letters from Storyville, April 1911,” Ophelia tells Constance of a particular client;

“….a man came up to my room,

and as I turned from the basin

where I dampened a towel to wash him,

he shooed me away, his coat and trousers

still fastened.  Afraid, I asked him,

What do you want? He answered only

a repeat of my own question, and when I knew

he meant for me to answer – What

do you want? – I could not…”

Another strong theme Trethewey presents is a subtle look at race.  Many of the poems include exoticizing Ophelia as an unusual object, and Ophelia’s madam gives her exotic names like the “African violet.”  Ophelia, being much lighter-skinned than many of her fellow girls, has tried, as the letters reveal, to be whiter by doing things like taking pills to bleach her skin.  In “Letters from Storyville, February 1911,” Trethewey’s Ophelia snaps at the other, more “country” girls;

“…You are what you look like,

I said, thinking it might cause some change

in their manner, that they might see to carry themselves

as ladies do.  I bit down hard on my tongue at the sight

of their faces – fair as magnolias, pale as wax –

though all of us bawds in this fancy colored house.”

Trethewey also dives into Ophelia’s crisis of identity and her struggles with being biracial.  In “Storyville Diary, Naming,” Ophelia recalls a memory; “…Once, my mother pushed me toward / a white man in our front room.  Your father, / she whispered.  He’s the one that named you, girl.”  Trethewey’s Ophelia never directly addresses her attitudes towards race, but through glimpses of Ophelia’s life, present and past, Trethewey paints a complicated portrait of racial identity.  Trethewey also writes from the third person, giving reader’s a vignette-type look at Ophelia from someone else’s eyes, making the collection very dimensional and complete as readers glimpse Ophelia from all angles.

What drew me to Bellocq’s Ophelia were the haunting qualities of Trethewey’s writing here.  I felt like Ophelia truly was a real woman and I was reading her memoir.  There was such character development that it almost read like a short novel, which I thought was very impressive.  Trethewey’s accuracy of detail was exquisite and even more in-depth than I had originally thought; after reading Bellocq’s Ophelia, I researched the real E.J. Bellocq and after browsing through some of his Storyville photos noted that more than just the cover photo was referenced in the poems.  Many of Bellocq’s photos of other girls were vividly recaptured by Trethewey as Ophelia and brought to life in a new medium, which I thought was very inspired.  Learning this gave even more depth to the lengths Trethewey took to create a sense of reality in the volume.

– Ellie

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