Clark has had an exceptional lineup of literary events this semester, and Tuesday’s “Poetry and History: an Evening with Natasha Trethewey” was no exception. Amy Richter, Dept. of History, introduced the US poet laureate with the idea that “we make stories, but they also make us.” Although we personally and collectively create the stories necessary to make sense of our human history, they continue to run independently as engines that dictate our interpretation of the past, and in turn, our present. Through the reading and sharing of interconnected poems and personal experiences growing up in the South with a black mother and white father, Trethewey exposes the prevailing inequality that our history perpetuates into our contemporary consciousness while ultimately redeeming the value poetry and narrative has in cultivating our future.
Introducing the theme behind the title of her newest poetry collection, Trethewey begins her reading with an experientially charged exploration of the word, “thrall,” or the state of being under another’s power. She first uses the word in context with contemporary art, law, and customs, then shifts into a vignette of a childhood discussion of the Enlightenment with her father. Using the contradiction between the movement’s emphasis on human equality and the historical hierarchy of race that followed, she introduces “Elegy.” The poem first appears as an anecdote of father-daughter bonding over a summer fishing trip, but soon alludes to the buds of familial animosity with the lines, “the river seeped in over your boots / and you grew heavier with that defeat.”
This theme of heaviness is continued in her reading of “Taxonomy.” Inspired by a series of casta paintings by Juan Rodriguez Juarez, “Taxonomy” travels through the meticulously categorized hierarchy of terms used to describe the children of mixed Spaniard and Hispanic decent during the conquest period.
These poems highlight the arbitrary system of assignation used to denote value based on “an equation of blood,” or systematization of racial purity. “This plus this equals this” reads almost elementary, but the personal context of the mathematical attempt to subjugate human life sings its inherent perversion.
She breaks from her reading to tell us that her father was also a poet, and predicted—yet dreaded—that his daughter would become the same. She demonstrates the source of this dread by borrowing from his work, “Knowledge,” to embody a lingering discomfort she felt through life. Influenced by a chalk drawing by J. H. Hasselhorst, 1864, “Knowledge” shifts the language of taxonomy to the field of surgery, borrowing terms of scientific observation to metaphorically and intrusively dissect a body. The cold, impersonal language soon seers with emotion when she quotes the line from her father’s poem that left her with such discomfort: “I study / my crossbreed child.”
She mimics his use of scientific language in describing his biracial daughter to construct a poem that reduces the “ideal female body” into a series of anatomical parts, dissected physically by “instruments of the empirical—scalpel, pincers,” and figuratively through the parsing of language. These lines act as a key, deciphering her connections between the objectifying terminology and the history of racial categorization.
Trethewey now distances the reading from her father, and focuses in on the way past academics used language to subjugate the black population. Part one of her poem, “The Americans,” is based on the research of Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright, who used pseudoscientific research to justify the slavery of blacks (James Denny Guillory offers an insightful analysis of Cartwright’s arguments in his article, “The Pro-Slavery Arguments of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright.”) The poem explicates physiological arguments for an inherent difference between blacks and whites.
Part two, “Blood,” demonstrates the arbitrary nature of this distinction of race through the examination of another portrait-based vignette—this time, a “quadroon” surrounded by a “melancholic beauty / meant to show the pathos of her condition.”
The use of the word “condition” to describe the blackness of the woman continues the theme of racial subjugation through scientific terminology. Trethewey also returns to a fixation on the backdrop behind the artistic subject, demonstrating the way a constructed context can influence the perception of identity. In the third part, “Help,” she describes a photograph by Robert Frank depicting a black woman holding a white infant. Connecting this image to a year spent alone with her mother while her father was away, Trethewey ponders the “betrayals of flesh” that prompt public assumptions about identity that are arbitrarily constructed from superficial observations. Such assumptions reduce the mother to “a black backdrop, / the dark foil in this American story.”
Trethewey’s final reading, “Enlightenment,” returns to memories of her father. She remembers the first time they visited Monticello and her father’s attempts to justify Thomas Jefferson’s participation in the institution of slavery. This experience is a foil for the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance that haunts Trethewey’s subject matter; the father’s implicit sense of white supremacy despite a paternal love for his biracial daughter acts as a microcosm for the way “the past holds us captive.” Even the empathy inherent in familial bonds seems impotent to the ideologies clutching at us from the depths of our history.
Trethewey’s method of alternating her poetry with personal anecdotes addresses the issue of biographical fallacy, encouraging the audience to implement an empathetic understanding of her unique experience as a tool to explore the ways history influences the actions of a population. Her assertion that narratives of history both bind and propel our relationships to race in contemporary discourse highlights the individual’s responsibility to examine how these influences affect one’s personal perceptions. Her father seems to act as an example of an overreliance on knowledge, warning that it is not a substitute for understanding and can too-easily allow one to bury life’s unavoidable contradictions in blinding rationalization.
Although her call to action asks us to engage in a daunting mission, Trethewey offers a simple tool: poetry. During her term as poet laureate, she’s sought to reintroduce to the American people the utility of poetry that’s been recognized by all civilizations since the creation of language. Its composition as an interconnected web of experiences and symbols allows us to examine the “truths” we all inherit. Rather than succumb to the ease of denial by turning away from the discomfort that is “inherent in the history,” we can use it as a catalyst for self-examination, transmuting pain into understanding. She fights against the trend of cynical editorialists writing premature obituaries for the medium—through interactions with people from diverse sectors of the American population, she’s discovered that poetry, in fact, “still matters.”
This insistence on the universal accessibility of poetry speaks to our primary intention at Clark Writes—to engage the community as a whole, and share its population’s unique experiences through writing. After her reading, I asked Trethewey for advice in achieving this goal. She offered a message to the Clark community, stressing that you don’t need a classroom to learn how to write: “Find an author that speaks to your passions… Fall in love with a great book, and let that be your teacher.”
Review by Mitchell Perry