On Thursday, December 6, from 4:15 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the Scheuer room of Kohlberg Hall, Natasha Trethewey, former Poet Laureate of the United States and Pulitzer-Prize-winner will be holding a reading of selections from her 2018 collection of poetry, “Monument: Poems New and Selected”.
Trethewey was born in Mississippi to a Black mother and a white Canadian father in 1966, one year before interracial marriage became legal in all U.S. states. Her work, which includes five collections of poetry and one book of creative nonfiction, is best-known for its hefty exploration of racial history, racial identity, and memory in the Americas. Her most recent collection, “Monument: Poems New and Selected,” which was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Poetry, explores themes that range from her own family history to the story of a multiracial prostitute sitting for a portrait by E.J. Bellocq.
On the evening of Thursday, November 29, Professor of English Nathalie Anderson held a discussion of Trethewey’s poetry open to Swarthmore students and faculty. The two Trethewey poems discussed were “Enlightenment” and a section of “Taxonomy,” both from her 2012 collection of poetry entitled “Thrall.” The discussion consisted of first watching videos of Trethewey read her poetry out loud, and then discussing the implications of the poems at smaller discussion tables.
“Enlightenment” is a poem that revolves around Trethewey’s relationship with her own father and her reconciliation with the fact that they differ in racial identity — or, in her own words, “this history that links us … even as it renders us other to each other.” The poem also relies on a discussion of Thomas Jefferson and his moral hypocrisy as a framing mechanism for her coming to terms with the differences between her and her father. Trethewey begins the poem with a description of Jefferson and her father’s belief that Jefferson had been a moral man who “could not have fathered those children” with Sally Hemings and only owned slaves “out of necessity.” Trethewey, despite the ideological differences between herself and her father as a result of their races, comes to accept him. “Enlightenment” shines as an example of the historical and memorial poetry that has come to define Trethewey’s body of work.
“Taxonomy,” on the other hand, is a series of poems based on a series of Casta (“race,” in English) paintings by Juan Rodríguez Juárez in Spanish-colonized America. The paintings revolve around the rigid social and racial hierarchy of Spanish-colonized America, and there is exactly one poem for each of the sixteen defined racial groups. In this specific poem from “Taxonomy,” “De Español y de India Produce Mestizo,” Trethewey explores the marriage and blood relation between an indigenous woman and a Spaniard man, and the manner in which they interact with their child together. This poem from “Taxonomy” is also demonstrative of the greater body of Trethewey’s work, in that its subject matter involves racial identity and history in the Americas.
Trethewey’s work, above all else, is introspective. It reaches below the surface of seemingly self-evident truths and tells the stories of those who have been belittled by the writers of history as a whole. She finds preëxisting pieces of artwork and history and skillfully manipulates them into backdrops not for their original protagonists, but for the stories of the people who once composed the background. Representing the voices of people who have rendered invisible history is a task that is more easily said than done. Trethewey, however, manages to execute descriptions and to craft thoughts so purely and precisely that her words bring a delicate balance of life to people who have been dead and forgotten for centuries. Even based on the originality and evocativeness of the two poems in the discussion, it is evident that Trethewey’s poetry reading will be both unforgettable and thought-provoking for days to come.
Natasha Trethewey, a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, will be presenting a reading of her most recent collection of poetry, “Monument: Poems New and Selected”, on Thursday, December 6, at 4:15 to 6:00 in the Scheuer Room of Kohlberg Hall. Join the Swarthmore campus and community for this rare opportunity to connect with one of the U.S.’s foremost scholars and poets.
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