Trethewey pays tribute to both her mother and to her home in the South in this Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection. Through these poems, Trethewey navigates the empty space between the living and the dead. She questions what information still lives, and what is cast into history. Even further, what part of that history remains in memory; what still clings? In “The Southern Crescent,” the narrator embraces the idea of transience, but as “she is leaving behind/ the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film/ of red dust around her ankles…” remains, a marker of where she has been. It is left to the reader to determine how far this woman can truly get from where she’s come (5). Trethewey doesn’t forget the flourishes of poetry, she is a master of form, using different sonnet and rhyming structures in “Myth” and “Graveyard Blues.”
Towards the end of the collection, Trethewey delves into the subject of identity, particularly referencing the interracial marriage of her own parents in the context of the South. In both “Miscegenation” and “My Mother Dreams Another Country,” she writes in a very matter of fact tone, tracing history as if drawing a timeline. “My Mother Dreams Another Country” focuses on the issue from her mother’s point of view, and how she watches the world change: “already the words are changing. She is changing/ from colored to negro, black still years ahead./ This is 1966 – she is married to a white man -/ and there are more names for what grows inside her/ It is enough to worry about words like mongrel/ and the infertility of mules and mulattoes/ while flipping through a book of baby names” (37).
Trethewey keeps it honest, as in “Blond,” where the possibility of what she could have looked like is explored; how each different variation in skin tone or hair color could have changed her experience in the world. While writing with an admiring respect for the history of the South, Trethewey is not afraid to expose the contradictions that work to limit those she identifies with. She writes in forms that celebrate the history of poetry that keep the language accessible to the reader.
On a personal note, Trethewey visited my school during our last residency in December. She spoke freely about her experiences in an MFA program and her passion for writing about race. She mentioned how she was discouraged from “writing solely about her people” and was told to “unburden herself” from her ancestry. This hit me hard, having experienced the same kind of criticism from a mentor who was assigned to me in my program. Trethewey mentioned that part of her impetus to write Bellocq’s Ophelia, (her 2nd book of poetry), was to push these issues onto a removed outlet that would be listened to – something of specific and intriguing historical context. During her talk, she encouraged us to become the writer we feel we are meant to be in spite of what others say. And especially as a writer of color, you have to know yourself even more. That our real teachers are those we seek out and read. Trethewey is one of those real teachers for me.
So of course, watch/listen to her read poetry – this video from last year’s Cave Canem. Her next collection, Thrall, with be out Sept. 2012