Natasha Trethewey and the Eyes of Historical/Poetic Consciousness
In Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), an aptly titled collection, Trethewey makes a partial analysis of bondage. Unlike their synonym “slavery,” thrall and bondage provoke images of the exotic, the gendered perversity we can easily confuse with “love,” and what is plainly erotic. Trethewey is extending the work begun in her second collection Bellocq’s Ophelia and placing greater stress on ekphrasis, the literary commentary on the visual image as text. The emphasis in Belocq’s Ophelia was on use of the persona and restoration of voice to the visual silence of invasive photography. Thrall directs attention away from such intimacy and toward the more blatant uses in painting of visual classification, particularly in the casta paintings of Juan Rodríguez Juárez and other artists fascinated by the body, the racialized evidence of the social constructions of biology. Ekphrasis is not exactly rare in poetry, and in African American poetry its touchstone is Clarence Major’s masterpiece “The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage,” a redoubling painterly text which Linda Ferguson Selzer brilliantly explicated in African American Review. One might gain much from reading Trethewey’s poems in tandem with rather than in gendered opposition to Major’s experiment with historical/poetic consciousness.
Aware of how verbal imagery has special manipulative power in lyric and narrative poetry, one is obliged to give regard Trethewey’s use of reversed ekphrasis in those poems in Thrall that concern her historical relationship with her poet father Eric Trethewey. The final stanza of “Enlightenment” (71) is a devastating and haunting self-interpretation of Thrall as a book and thrall as a category of human experience:
I’ve made a joke of it, this history
that links us ---white father, black daughter ---
even as it renders us other to each other.
Trethewey plainly “outs” the black humor of history blackly. And the grand question to which one may choose to respond is “Why should we have just this kind of poetry at just this point in the early years of the twenty-first century?
One might make some progress toward an answer from reading Arthé A. Anthony’s Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer’s View of the Early Twentieth Century (University Press of Florida, 2012), a study of Florestine Perrault Collins, a woman who learned photographic techniques while passing for white. Despite change, much in the United States is constant: all of us are held in thrall by someone’s camera lens, by someone’s paint brush, by someone’s hegemonic eye.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
October 1, 2012