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A picture is worth a thousand words…A recommendation for Natasha Trethewey’s “Bellocq’s Ophelia”

Natasha Trethewey’s second published collection, “Bellocq’s Ophelia”, is the result of research that she began while still in graduate school. She got her idea for this collection of poems from seeing E. J. Bellocq’s “Storyville Portraits”, which contained photographs of prostitutes, many of whom were women of mixed races who lived in the infamous red-light district of New Orleans during the early 1900s. These persona poems present an octoroon prostitute, imaginatively named Ophelia, living in the pleasure palaces of Storyville, New Orleans. Divided into three sections, Trethewey’s period piece covers Ophelia’s life from October 1910 to March 1912. Sections 1 and 2 contain 15 letters; Section 3 has 10 sonnets.

Trethewey found her protagonist in 33 pictures of passing courtesans taken by photographer E. J. Bellocq. (Ophelia’s father is white, but she doesn’t seem burdened by racial self-hatred or identity confusion.) The majority of Bellocq’s photos are seductive nudes and not conservatively dressed like Ophelia. Trethewey’s choice of this particular prostitute mirrors her formal exactitude and thematic fastidiousness. In relating her customers’ indulgences, Ophelia tells us, ”There are those whose desires I cannot commit to paper.” Trethewey’s restrained ear and eye lead to metaphorical epiphanies, such as when Ophelia admits in ”Letter From Storyville,” ”I am the African Violet for the promise of the wild continent hidden beneath my white skin.”

I mentioned Trethewey’s fastidiousness due to her meticulous sonnets of the third section of her collection. Trethewey sticks rather strongly to the traditional sonnet, using 14 lines with 10-beats each. She rarely strays from this rigid form. Her sonnets become successful because of their clever enjambments and well-placed caesuras throughout, keeping the pace of the poem consistently smooth. Here is an example, her first sonnet entitled “Naming”:

I cannot now remember the first word
I learned to write—perhaps it was my name,
OPHELIA, in tentative strokes, a banner
slanting across my tablet at school, or inside
the cover of some treasured book. Leaving
my home today, I feel even more the need
for some new words to mark this journey,
like the naming of a child—Queen, Lovely,
Hope—marking even the humblest beginnings
in the shanties. My own name was a chant
over the washboard, a song to guide me
into sleep. 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.

Ophelia possesses a robust intellectual curiosity. Her intelligence becomes a form of resistance. Her customers might have dominion over her body, but not her mind. Ophelia relishes and resents memory and realizes how the ”camera fastens us to our pasts.” She desires freedom from it.
Although the book is not illustrated, except for the stoic black and white picture of Ophelia on the cover, the reader does not feel the need to see the actual photos that Trethewey describes. In fact, Trethewey does a better job of describing the photos through her poetry than actually seeing the photographs yourself. The poem “Photograph of a Bawd Drinking Raleigh Rye” is a perfect example:

The glass in her hand is the only thing moving—
too fast for the camera—caught in the blur of motion.

She raises it toasting, perhaps, the viewer you become
taking her in—your eyes starting low, at her feet,

and following those striped stockings like roads,
traveling the length of her calves and thighs. Up then,

to the fringed scarf draping her breasts, the heart
locket, her bare shoulder and the patch of dark hair

beneath her arm, the round innocence of her cheeks
and Gibson-girl hair…

This poem really sucks the reader in, providing an intimate angle of the prostitute. I would highly recommend “Bellocq’s Ophelia” to anyone who wants to read vivid, descriptive, and engaging poetry created in a very interesting way. Natasha Trethewey’s idea to create a narrative derived from photos is pretty unusual but very successful.

-Danny M.

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