Poetry Friday: Natasha Tretheway-"Native Guard:Poems"

Poetry Friday is hosted by Mary Lee at A Year of Reading

Ever since last Thursday, when I learned that she had been named our Poet Laureate, I’ve been reading and listening to Natasha Tretheway’s poems and interviews.  Perhaps because I am teaching the Civil War at the moment, I have been especially interested in her poems about the Louisiana Native Guard – the first black regiment in the Union Army.  I learned that these men came from the New Orleans region, and were free men of mixed-race bloodlines whose families had been given their freedom by the Federal government when New Orleans became an American possession through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. 
The 1st Regiment of the Louisiana Native Guard disproved the myths about the bravery and military capacity of black soldiers – they particularly distinguished themselves in the battle of Port Hudson in 1863, fighting tenaciously against incredible odds.  

The 2nd. Regiment of the Native Guard found themselves on Ship Island on the Gulf Coast, guarding Confederate prisoners of war.  I can only imagine what life must have been like on this lonely stretch of sand during those war years.  
So much has been written about the 54th. of Massachusetts, and I had always thought (and taught ) that this was the first black regiment of the Civil War…Tretheway’s poems opened my eyes to a whole new set of stories about the Civil War and the African American soldiers’ struggle to serve with dignity.  I’ve ordered this collection, and can’t wait for it to arrive:
Meanwhile, I’ve fallen in love with this poem, which speaks to me of the power of history and the power of shared memory:


by Natasha Trethewey

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.

And here is Tretheway, at Ship’s Island, reading one of the “Native Guard”  poems:

In one of the many interviews I listened to, Tretheway talks about looking forward to listening to what Americans want to hear in the poetry of their Poet Laureate.  In this interview, a call-in program on NPR, she listened to  suggestions carefully – she seemed so excited about the possibilities in her new role, and so open to ideas and experiences to explore in her poetry.  How wonderful for all of us that she is so enthused!


16 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: Natasha Tretheway-"Native Guard:Poems"

  1. This is really great research to hear about Tara. At first, I thought I had visited this place, but it was somewhere else so like this, a prison abandoned from the Civil War, over on the other side of Florida. The poem is haunting: "we marvel at their clothes… We sleep in their beds" I would imagine your students so immersed in the Civil War would get something from it. Thanks.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing more about Natasha's work. I'm also looking forward to reading Native Guard. She feels like a breath of fresh air with her openness and enthusiasm. It's going to be wonderful and interesting to have her as Poet Laureate. 🙂

  3. Tretheway's work is so vivid. I'm captivated from the first line of this poem. I love this image of the woman–writing herself/into history, asking what is to become/of all the living things in this place? So powerful.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this! My son and I enjoyed it very much. The language is beyond him but the images made a great impression. I love Treheway's poetry and her strong voice. Favorite line from this one: "God's deliberate eye." Fabulous to hear this!

  5. Hi, Tara. I'm just getting to know Trethewey's work. My favorite lines in this poem were:At the museum, we marvel at their clothes— preserved under glass—so much smallerthan our own, as if those who wore them were only children.There's a sense of protectiveness over these past-people. Beautiful poem!

  6. Echoing thanks, Tara, for your thoughtful consideration of our new poet laureate! The video is great. The poem is indeed haunting – "…brush against their cold shoulders/in the long hallways." Wonderful stuff.

  7. So glad you're teaching us about our new Poet Laureate, whose work I don't really know. That ending–oh my! My other favorite part isthe living come to minglewith the dead, brush against their cold shoulders in the long hallways, listen all nightto their silence and indifference

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