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
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!