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Natasha Trethewey Poetry

All by Natasha Trethewey, 2010 Featured Poet

Letter Home

–New Orleans, November 1910

Four weeks have passed since I left, and still
I must write to you of no work. I’ve worn down
the soles and walked through the tightness
of my new shoes calling upon the merchants,
their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking
my plain English and good writing would secure
for me some modest position Though I dress each day
in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves
you crocheted–no one needs a girl. How flat
the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins.
I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet
industry, to mask the desperation that tightens
my throat. I sit watching–

though I pretend not to notice–the dark maids
ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive
anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown
as your dear face, they’d know I’m not quite
what I pretend to be. I walk these streets
a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes
of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine,
a negress again. There are enough things here
to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through
the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall
the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard
at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking
their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads
on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots
and irons of the laundresses call to me.

I thought not to do the work I once did, back bending
and domestic; my schooling a gift–even those half days
at picking time, listening to Miss J–. How
I’d come to know words, the recitations I practiced
to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up
or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until
I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,
I repeated whole sections I’d learned by heart,
spelling each word in my head to make a picture
I could see, as well as a weight I could feel
in my mouth. So now, even as I write this
and think of you at home, Goodbye
is the waving map of your palm, is
a stone on my tongue.


Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
you ’bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.
Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,
circling them just above water
and silver backs of minnows
flitting here then there between
the sun spots and the shadows.
This is how you hold the pole
to cast the line out straight.
Now put that worm on your hook,
throw it out and wait.
She sat spitting tobacco juice
into a coffee cup.
Hunkered down when she felt the bite,
jerked the pole straight up
reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back.
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
’cause one of its sides is black.
The other is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.

Domestic Work, 1937

All week she’s cleaned
someone else’s house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper–
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she’d pull
the lid to–that look saying

Let’s make a change, girl.

But Sunday mornings are hers–
church clothes starched
and hanging, a record spinning
on the console, the whole house
dancing. She raises the shades,
washes the rooms in light,
buckets of water, Octagon soap.

Cleanliness is next to godliness …

Windows and doors flung wide,
curtains two-stepping
forward and back, neck bones
bumping in the pot, a choir
of clothes clapping on the line.

Nearer my God to Thee …

She beats time on the rugs,
blows dust from the broom
like dandelion spores, each one
a wish for something better.


I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,
the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking
you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.
Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning.
But in dreams you live. So I try taking,
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow.
The Erebus I keep you in — still, trying —
I make between my slumber and my waking.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hallow.
I was asleep while you were dying.


In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong — mis in Mississippi.

A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same
as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.

Faulkner’s Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given him name
for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.

My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.
I was born near Easter, in 1966, in Mississippi.

When I turned 33 my father said, It’s your Jesus year — you’re the same
age he was when he died
. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.

I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name —
though I’m not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.


What’s left is footage: the hours before
Camille, 1969 — hurricane
parties, palm trees leaning

in the wind,
fronds blown back,

a woman’s hair. Then after:
the vacant lots,
boats washed ashore, a swamp

where graves has been. I recall

how we huddled all night in our small house,
moving between rooms,
emptying pots filled with rain.

The next day, our house —
on its cinderblocks — seemed to float

in the flooded yard: no foundation

beneath us, nothing I could see
tying us to the land.
In the water, our reflection

when I bent to touch it.


Vicksburg, Mississippi

Here, the Mississippi carved
its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city
as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up
above the river’s bend—where now

the Yazoo fills the Mississippi’s empty bed.
Here, the dead stand up in stone, white

marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand
on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;

they must have seemed like catacombs,
in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,

candlelit, underground. I can see her
listening to shells explode, writing herself

into history, asking what is to become
of all the living things in this place?

This whole city is a grave. Every spring—
Pilgrimage—the living come to mingle

with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders
in the long hallways, listen all night

to their silence and indifference, relive
their dying on the green battlefield.

At the museum, we marvel at their clothes—
preserved under glass—so much smaller

than our own, as if those who wore them
were only children. We sleep in their beds,

the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped
in flowers—funereal—a blur

of petals against the river’s gray.
The brochure in my room calls this

living history. The brass plate on the door reads
Prissy’s Room. A window frames

the river’s crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream,
the ghost of history lies down beside me,

rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

Theories of Time and Space

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion – dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on a mangrove swamp – buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry – tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph – who you were –
will be waiting when you return

Elegy for the Native Guards

Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea . . .
—Allen Tate

We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead
trailing the boat—streamers, noisy fanfare—
all the way to Ship Island. What we see
first is the fort, its roof of grass a lee—
half reminder of the men who served there—
a weathered monument to some of the dead.

Inside we follow the ranger, hurried
though we are to get to the beach. He tells
of graves lost in the Gulf, the island split
in half when Hurricane Camille hit,
shows us casemates, cannons, the store that sells
souvenirs, tokens of history long buried.

The Daughters of the Confederacy
has placed a plaque here, at the fort’s entrance—
each Confederate soldier’s name raised hard
in bronze; no names carved for the Native Guards—
2nd regiment, Union men, black phalanx.
What is monument to their legacy?

All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—
water—lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
Only the fort remains, near forty feet high
round, unfinished, half-open to the sky,
the elements—wind, rain—God’s deliberate eye.

Self-Employement, 1970

Who to be today? So many choices
all that natural human hair piled high,
curled and flipped — style after style
perched, each on its Styrofoam head.
Maybe an upsweep, or finger waves
with a pony tail.
Not a day passes
that she goes unkempt —
Never know who might stop by —
now that she works at home
pacing the cutting table,
or pumping the stiff pedal
of the bought-on-time Singer.

Most days, she dresses for the weather
relentless sun, white heat. The one tree
nearest her workroom, a mimosa,
its whimsy of pink puffs cut back
for a child’s swing set. And now, grandchildren —
it’s come to this — a frenzy of shouts,
the constant slap of an old screen door.
At least the radio still swings jazz
just above the noise, and

Ah yes, the window unit — leaky at best.
Sometimes she just stands still, lets
ice water drip onto upturned wrists.
Up under that wig, her head
sweating, hot as an idea.

History Lesson

I am four in this photograph, standing
on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,
my hands on the flowered hips

of a bright bikini. My toes dig in,
curl around wet sand. The sun cuts
the rippling Gulf in flashes with each

tidal rush. Minnows dart at my feet
glinting like switchblades. I am alone
except for my grandmother, other side

of the camera, telling me how to pose.
It is 1970, two years after they opened
the rest of this beach to us,

forty years since the photograph
where she stood on a narrow plot
of sand marked colored, smiling,

her hands on the flowered hips
of a cotton meal-sack dress.

Excerpt from Bellocq’s Ophelia


from a photograph, circa 1912

In Millais’s painting, Ophelia dies faceup,
eyes and mouth open as if caught in the gasp
of her last word or breath, flowers and reeds
growing out of the pond, floating on the surface
around her. The young woman who posed
lay in a bath for hours, shivering,
catching cold, perhaps imagining fish
tangling in her hair or nibbling a dark mole
raised upon her white skin. Ophelia’s final gaze
aims skyward, her palms curling open
as if she’s just said, Take me.

I think of her when I see Bellocq’s photograph —
a woman posed on a wicker divan, her hair
spilling over. Around her, flowers —
on a pillow, on a thick carpet. Even
the ravages of this old photograph
bloom like water lilies across her thigh.
how long did she hold there, this other
Ophelia, nameless inmate in Storyville,
naked, her nipples offered up hard with cold?

The small mound of her belly, the pale hair
of her pubis — these things — her body
there for the taking. But in her face, a dare.
Staring into the camera, she seems to pull
all movement from her slender limbs
and hold it in her heavy-lidded eyes.
Her body limp as dead Ophelia’s,
her lips poised to open, to speak.


August 1911

I pose nude for this photograph, awkward,
one arm folded behind my back, the other
limp at my side. Seated, I raise my chin,
my back so straight I imagine the bones
separating in my spine, my neck lengthening
like evening shadow. When I see this plate
I try to recall what I was thinking —
how not to be exposed, though naked, how
to wear skin like a garment, seamless.
Bellocq thinks I’m right for the camera, keeps
coming to my room. These plates are fragile,
he says, showing me how easy it is
to shatter this image of myself, how
a quick scratch carves a scar across my chest.

MARCH 1911

It troubles me to think that I am suited
for this work — spectacle and fetish —
a pale odalisque. But then I recall
my earliest training — childhood — how
my mother taught me to curtsy and be still
so that I might please a white man, my father.
For him I learned to shape my gestures,
practiced expressions on my pliant face.

Later, I took arsenic — tablets I swallowed
to keep me fair, bleached white as stone.
Whiter still, I am a reversed silhouette
against the black backdrop where I pose, now,
for photographs, a man named Bellocq.
He visits often, buys time only to look
through his lens. It seems I can sit for hours,
suffer the distant eye he trains on me,

lose myself in reverie where I think most
of you: how I was a doll in your hands
as you brushed and plaited my hair, marveling
that the comb — your fingers — could slip through
as if sifting fine white flour. I could lose myself
then, too, my face — each gesture — shifting
to mirror yours as when I’d sit before you, scrubbed
and bright with schooling, my eyebrows raised,

punctuating each new thing you taught. There,
at school, I could escape my other life of work:
laundry, flat irons and damp sheets, the bloom
of steam before my face; or picking time,
hunchbacked in the field — a sea of cotton,
white as oblivion — where I would sink
and disappear. Now I face the camera, wait
for the photograph to show me who I am.

MARCH 1911

I know well the state of dread you describe,
and news of another lynching where you are
dredges the silt of my memory — days when

my mother would snuff the lamps early,
a thin blanket of whisper and hush over us.
We’d hear danger even in the soft rustling

of leaves. And in the fields, we’d bend lower
to our work. Such things come as less and less
a shock. Everywhere there are the dead and dying —

disease taking them slowly, or violence with its quic
and steady hand. In the paper today, tragedy
in New York City — a clothing factory, so many women

dying in a fire. The place they worked, locked up tight,
became a tomb. I live where I work. Will I die here
too? I read that some chose a last moment of flight,

leaping nine stories to their deaths. Others stayed
inside, perhaps to be burned clean
in the fire’s embrace, to rise again through the flames.


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.

The Southern Crescent

In 1959 my mother is boarding a train.
She is barely sixteen, her one large grip
bulging with homemade dresses, whisper
of crinoline and lace, her name stitched
inside each one. She is leaving behind
the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film
of red dust around her ankles, the thin
whistle of wind through the floorboards
of the shotgun house, the very idea of home.

Ahead of her, days of travel, one town
after the next and California –a word
she can’t stop repeating. Over and over,
she will practice meeting her father, imagine
how he must look, how different now
from the one photo she has of him. She will
look at it once more, pulling in to the station
at Los Angeles, and again and again
on the platform. no one like him in sight.

The year the old Crescent makes its last run,
my mother insists we ride it together.
We leave Gulfport late morning heading east.
Years before, we rode together to meet
another man, my father waiting for us
as our train derailed. I don’t recall how
she must have held me, how her face sank
as she realized, again, the uncertainty
of it all–that trip, too, gone wrong. Today,

she is sure we can leave home, bound only
for whatever awaits us, the sun now
setting behind us, the rails humming
like anticipation, the train pulling us
toward the end of another day. I watch
each small town pass before my window
until the light goes, and the reflection
of my mother’s face appears, clearer now
as evening comes on, dark and certain.

Early Evening, Frankfurt, 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 walked. 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.


We tell the story every year–
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn–
though nothing really happened,
The charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our rooms at lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.

It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly. No one came.
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
By morning the flames had all dimmed.

When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning, all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.

This Time

I am climbing onto a bed, a tall one,

an island in the center of the room,

and the motion of it, he way I push off the cold floor

lifts me instead onto my parents’ bed, years gone.

They are both here, my young father reading, squinting,

the creases around his eyes and in his brow

deepening already toward an expression of grief.

I have climbed up into 1970, into the bed

my parents will share for only a few more years.

Sitting between them, I am holding up their hands,

the three of us a study in contrasts, light to dark,

our shadows on the wall,

bigger and stranger than we are.

All day I have asked questions,

a child’s endless why and why and why.

And I am learning, looking at one my father’s hands,

then again at my mother’s. I have climbed into a moment

where there is no peckerwoods and nigger

lover, no half-breed, no zebra — words I’ve learned in school

and come home questioning.

We are sitting together on the tiny island of bed, quiet

in a language of blood: oil lamps flickering around us.

This time, it is not about the school yard, its lessons.

This time, I am watching my mother, the motion

she makes lying down, her shadow disappearing,

half of the room going dark, as she drifts into sleep

her hand falling away from mine.

Family Portrait

Before the picture man comes,
Momma 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 where knees, shins, scratching air
as–years later—I’d itch for what’s not there.


We lived by the words
of gods, mythologies

you’d mold our history to.
How many nights you,

a young father, squint-eyed
from books and lamplight,
weaving lessons into bedtime–
the story of Icarus wanting

to soar, (like me on my swing set)
not heeding a father’s words,

his fall likened to mine.
I carry his doom to sleep,

and that of Narcissus too,
his watered face floating

beautiful and tragic above
my head. My own face

a mirrored comfort
you’d pull me from. Late,

when my dreams turned
to nightmare, you were there—

Beowulf to slay Grendel
at my door. The blood on your hands

you’d anoint my head with.
You would have me bold, fearless—

these were things you needed
to teach me. Warning and wisdom.

You couldn’t have known
how I’d take your words and shape

them in creation, reinvent you
a thousand times, making you

forever young and invincible,
Not like now. Not like now.

At Dusk

At first I think she is calling a child,
my neighbor, leaning through her doorway
at dusk, street lamps just starting to hum
the backdrop of evening. Then I hear
the high-pitched wheedling we send out
to animals who know only sound, not
the meanings of our words–hear, hear—
nor how they sometimes fall short.
In another yard, beyond my neighbor’s
sight, the cat lifts her ears, turns first
towards the voice, then back
to the constellation of fireflies flickering
near her head. It’s as if she can’t decide
whether to leap over the low hedge,
the neat row of flowers, and bound
onto the porch, into the steady circle
of light, or stay where she is: luminous
possibility — all that would keep her
away from home — flitting before her.
I listen as my neighbor’s voice trails off.
She’s given up calling for now, left me
to imagine her inside the house waiting,
perhaps in a chair in front of the TV,
or walking around, doing small tasks;
left me to wonder that I too might lift
my voice, sure of someone out there,
send it over the lines stitching here
to there, certain the sounds I make
are enough to call someone home.

Epilogue: Liturgy

To the security guard staring at the gulf
thinking of bodies washed away from the coast, plugging her ears
against the bells and sirens—sound of alarm—the gaming floor
on the coast;

To Billy Scarpetta, waiting tables on the coast, staring at the gulf
thinking of water rising, thinking of New Orleans, thinking of cleansing
the coast;

To the woman dreaming of returning to the coast, thinking of water rising,
her daughter’s grave, my mother’s grave—underwater—on the coast;

To Miss Mary, somewhere;

To the displaced, living in trailers along the coast, beside the highway,
in vacant lots and open fields; to everyone who stayed on the coast,
who came back—or cannot—to the coast;

To those who died on the coast.

This is a memory of the coast: to each his own
recollections, her reclamations, their
restorations, the return of the coast.

This is a time capsule for the coast: words of the people
don’t forget us
the sound of wind, waves, the silence of graves,
the muffled voice of history, bulldozed and buried
under sand poured on the eroding coast,
the concrete slabs of rebuilding the coast.

This is a love letter to the Gulf Coast, a praise song, a dirge,
invocation and benediction, a requiem for the Gulf Coast.

This cannot rebuild the coast; it is an indictment, a complaint,
my logos—argument and discourse—with the coast.

This is my nostos—my pilgrimage to the coast, my memory, my reckoning—

native daughter: I am the Gulf Coast.

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