An Evening with Our New Poet Laureate

An Evening with Our New Poet Laureate

Steven F. Riley

2012-2013 U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey at Library of Congress (2012-09-13).©2012, Steven F. Riley

Natasha Trethewey is preoccupied about race. It is a fruitful preoccupation for which we all should be grateful.

[View the inaugural reading transcript here.]

Last Thursday, Emory University Professor Trethewey gave her inaugural reading as the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. After a warm introduction by the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, Ms. Trethewey arrived on stage for a handshake from Mr. Billington and a standing ovation by a packed and enthusiastic audience of 5oo (plus an extra 100 outside the auditorium).

Ms. Trethewey is the first Southerner to hold the post since Robert Penn Warren, the original laureate, and she is the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993. Ms. Trethewey is also the Mississippi Poet Laureate (2012-2016); winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry Native Guard; winner of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts; four Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prizes; The Lillian Smith Book Awards for Poetry; fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study Center and the Bunting Fellowship Program of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University; 2008 Georgia Woman of the Year; 2009 inductee into the Fellowship of Southern Writers; and 2011 inductee into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. And she is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.

Ms. Trethewey read a selection of poems from her recently released book of poems dedicated to her poet father, titled Thrall.

The poems read were:

  • “Elegy (For my father)
  • Taxonomy:
    • De Español y de India Produce Mestiso”
    • De Español y Negra Produce Mulato”
    • De Español y Mestiza Produce Castiza”
    • The Book of Castas”
  • “Knowledge”
  • “Miracle of the Black Leg”
  • “The Americans” (“Help, 1968”)
  • Mano Prieta”
  • Torna Atrás”
  • “Mythology”
  • “Calling: Mexico, 1969
  • “Fouled”
  • “Rotation”
  • “Enlightenment”
  • “Illumination.”

Born in 1966 to a black mother and white father in Mississippi—the tortured crucible of race relations in the United States—it is understandable that the topic of race would be a recurring theme in Trethewey’s writings. Yet we never grow tired reading her poems about race because of her innate ability to weave the personal with the historical. As a consequence, her stories are our stories. As in her poem, “Elightenment,” where she describes a trip to Monticello with her father, for a few brief moments we read how she conflates one of our founding fathers with her own father.

…I did not know then the subtext
of our story, that my father could imagine
Jefferson’s words made flesh in my flesh—

Without taking herself too seriously, Ms. Trethewey humorously described that the only surviving remnant of a family trip to Mexico in 1969 was a photograph of her sitting on a mule, as she began reading “Calling: Mexico, 1969.

In her series of moving poems about casta paintings, Ms. Trethewey reveals her ability to not only compel the reader to contemplate the lives of the subjects of the paintings, but also to bring the subjects of the paintings to life as in her poem “Taxonomy: De Español y de India Produce Mestiso” (Which describes a series of casta paintings by Juan Rodríguez Juárez, c. 1715).

Spaniard and Indian Produce Mestizo. c. 1715. Oil on canvas. 81×105 cm. (Breamore House, Hampshire, United Kingdom).

The canvas is leaden sky
behind them, heavy
with words, gold letters inscribing
an equation of blood—…

…If the father, his hand
on her skull, divines—
as the physiognomist does—
the mysteries

of her character, discursive,
legible on her light flesh,
in the soft curl of her hair,
we cannot know it: so gentle

the eye he turns toward her.
The mother, glancing
sideways toward him—
the scarf on her head

white as his face,
his powdered wig—gestures
with one hand a shape
like the letter C. See,

she seems to say,
what we have made

After concluding her reading with her poem, “Illumination,” Ms. Trethewey received yet another standing ovation.

Head of the Poetry and Literature Center Robert Casper concluded the event, and Ms. Trethewey entered the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building for a reception and book signing.

©2012, Steven F. Riley

©2012, Steven F. Riley