The Craft of Natasha Trethewey

ImageAbout Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Ange Mlinko has said that the book “is structured like a dialectic, in three parts: the autobiographical as thesis, the historical as antithesis, and the intertwining of the personal and the historical as synthesis.” On reading this comment, I realized that the Book Club for Poets hadn’t yet considered the structure of an entire book of poems — and that Native Guard would be an excellent book for this kind of craft discussion. The individual poems of this collection — which received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry — are impressive in the range of forms Trethewey takes on: the pantoum, villanelle, a crown of sonnets, and even a palindrome, among other. But in addition to the mastery of individual poems, the overall structure of the book shows us how careful ordering of poems can create something greater than the sum of its parts. In our discussion, we basically walked through the book from title and dedication through to the final poem, paying attention to the shifts and echoes created with each additional element. We don’t have space to cover that entire discussion here, so I’d like to focus on the introductory poem.

Including a proem, or prefatory poem — one that appears in the volume even before the official first section — can be a risky technique for poets. Such a poem must bear the weight of a great deal of expectation: readers will want the poem to be both representative of the book as a whole and particularly strong on its own. The title of Trethewey’s proem is “Theories of Time and Space,” which sets the focus of the book at the broadest, most abstract view of how we experience history and memory as well as location. The poem starts with a meditative/discursive passage:

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

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. …

The colloquial tone of the opening two couplets contrast to the formality of the title, though both title and stanzas are similarly abstract. The opening lines reminded members of the Book Club of the New England comment “You can’t get there from here” (a wry remark about the remoteness of certain locations) and the Southern “You can’t go home again” of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. So the poem hints already at the North and South of the Civil War, which be the setting of “Native Guard,” a sequence of sonnets in the middle section of the book. The opening stanza also suggests a journey to a place we’ve been before, a place in our past — although “there’s no going home,” the lines suggest that “home” is precisely what the “you” of the poem had originally hoped to find.

Similarly philosophical is the second couplet, which brings to mind the Heraclitus’s familiar concept of time as a river: you can never put your foot into the same river twice. Time itself changes a location, or at least our understanding of it — the fixed point of place altered by history and our individual experience of the passage of time.

The narrator of the poem then says, “Try this: / / head south down Mississippi 49.” These lines break through abstractness by introducing a specific location and the specific action of driving. What follows is a long lyrical passage heavy with imagery, the imperative mood, and right-branching syntax:

… 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.

The location is clearly a Southern one: Gulfport, Mississippi. Psychologically, the images suggest waste, frustration, damage, threat: the minutes of life are being “ticked off” in travel to a “dead end,” the “stitches” of rigging suggesting the mending of cloth or flesh, though this mending is “loose.” Even the weather is “threatening.” We’ll learn later in the book that Trethewey’s mother was from Gulfport, so the proem is setting up that echo. The poem continues:

… Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on the mangrove swamp — buried
terrain of the past.

The landscape of Gulfport echoes back to the idea of the epigraph that precedes the proem: lines from “Meditation on Form and Measure” by Charles Wright, lines that declare that “everywhere” something is “underfoot,” “buried” beneath the present. Other burials later in the book will pick up on this idea of events and people being hidden from view. Sometimes these burials are specific, autobiographical, as in “What Is Evidence,” about Trethewey’s mother; other times, the burials are historical, as in “Native Guard,” the bodies and graves African American soldiers wiped from history — until the poet writes about them.

The narrator of “Meditations” then advises the “you” of the poem to “Bring only / / what you must carry — tome of memory, / its random blank pages.” So memory is a necessity, but also random and blank, something to be filled in.

The poem ends with a narrative yet to be unfolded: on the “dock” of departure for “Ship Island,”

someone will take your picture:

the photograph — who you were —
will be waiting when you return.

Whatever this journey is, the “you” will be changed by it. The photograph can capture only “who you were,” not who you are after experiencing Ship Island. Even if the reader is unaware of the history of Ship Island — the site of a prison for white Confederate soldiers guarded by the black Union guards — the reader understands that the journey is significant. What is learned or experienced there will change the “you” — and, by implication, the “we” of Trethewey’s readers.

The proem has established markers that recur throughout the book: the history of the Deep South, travel and return, memory, “tomes” of writing and history, the lost and buried. All of these elements will recur throughout Native Guard — in the first section, about the poet’s mother; in the center section, about African American history; and in the final section, in which the mixed-race narrator herself embodies both black and white and, in Mlinko’s words, “refuses to give up her legacy, which encompasses the land and its history, its mess and its murderousness.” As an example of a prefatory poem, “Theories of Time and Space” is extremely successful: it is powerful on its own and yet anticipates what’s to come.


Ange Mlinko, “More Than Meets the I,” Poetry Foundation, www. /poetrymagazine/article/180081.

Natasha Trethewey, “Theories of Time and Space,” Native Guard (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 1.