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Monday, April 15, 2013

Representation and the Poetry of Natasha Trethewey




Jerry W. Ward, Jr.



ABSTRACT:   One remarkable feature of Natasha Trethewey’s poetry is the hegemony of the visual, the dominance of photography and other forms of pictorial representation as she seeks to make sense of the burden of history.   Trethewey does not passively accept that hegemony.  She uses experiential memory and memory acquired from reading to challenge the visual, to ask what is absent, what the visual often successfully conceals if it is not subjected to scrutiny.  In these remarks I use a few of Trethewey’s  ideas about representation in Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010) to sketch briefly how she investigates history by way of analysis of  visual representation as text.


Key Words: identity, representation, history,  ekphrasis




Natasha Trethewey’s  memoir Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast must compete with numerous other books on the specialized traumas caused by Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005.. The similar bid for attention among hundreds of books of contemporary poetry is mild when compared with the ferocity that swirls among the multiple forms of commentary on the Storm (Hurricane Katrina) as that tragic event is referred to in New Orleans. The cause of such ferocity is not malice enacted by any of the artists or survivors who articulate feelings and insights about the Storm. It is, on the contrary, the result of the depth and magnitude of pain attached to the event that calls into question the legitimacy of one’s speaking about or for or of giving aesthetic form to something that resists representation. It is the possibility of succeeding in realizing a truth that is the question, for negotiating the facts and the myths surrounding August 29, 2005 and the landfall of a hurricane involves exposure of the material and the immaterial. The problem is truly more philosophical than poetic. As Elaine Scarry noted in a very pointed way in Resisting Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), some entities defy representation. The abstract may be “beyond the reach of speech and writing,” and the concrete might be left “outside the reflexes of language.” In matters pertaining to the abstract and the concrete in our lives, “what is overtly at issue is the knowability of the world, and that knowability depends on its susceptibility to representation” (3).


In her dealing with what is made knowable and what remains unknown by virtue of representation, Trethewey’s poems necessitate our dealing with complex issues of literary representation.[i] She is to be commended for achieving a resolution of poetic and philosophical issues, albeit a contingent resolution, in Beyond Katrina. The book resolves, by virtue of its lucidity, some problems of evaluating works about Hurricane Katrina and literary works which have strong investments in American social and cultural history. In addition, Beyond Katrina clarifies some matters germane to the interpretation of Trethewey’s poetry to date, because she meditates intensely on memory, history, and the act of writing. Any doubts regarding the legitimacy of speaking by a person who was not there during and in the immediate aftermath of the Storm are set to rest by (1) the fact that Trethewey had kin, family, who were survivors of Katrina’s ravaging and (2) the fact that she seeks to fully historicize hurricanes in general and to put certain storms of family life into perspective.  The family storms are microcosms of the collective ethnic storms that prevail in America.


Moreover, the value of Beyond Katrina is increased by her incorporating portions of her earlier writing and family photographs as evidence of authenticity. The photographs make the references to Son Dixon, Sugar, and the Owl Club, North Gulfport in Domestic Work visual as well as verbal. Trethewey’s critique of the photograph as a means of objectifying what ought perhaps be left human and finite in Bellocq’s Ophelia and of paintings  in Thrall becomes poignant irony when she explains in Beyond Katrina why she is at peace with the fact that a certain snapshot of herself and her brother is lost. The deep reasons for the necessity of reconstructing the history of the South and of Mississippi so carefully researched in Native Guard are further illuminated in Trethewey’s reconstructing a personal and public history of Gulfport, Mississippi.


Trethewey thoroughly domesticates her reconstruction  of representation in the “Prologue” for Beyond Katrina by noting that she “like many people from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, are haunted -- even at the edges of consciousness -- by the possibility of a natural disaster” (1). The confession about being haunted provides a special clue about her meditation and her growing body of poetry , about where it might fit in the long history of Southern literature and African American poetry.  Although Mississippi writers have no monopoly on being haunted, we  do share with other Southern writers a preoccupation with dimensions of being haunted; indeed, we might argue that Southern writers respond with greater alacrity than do other American writers to the ineluctable demands that one’s location in time, one’s “history,”  can make on human consciousness; we are perhaps more sensitive to the onus of acknowledging and recording how we, to echo the phrasing of William Faulkner, endure and prevail. Haunting is the bite of both conscience and consciousness. Literary and visual representations as does the blues intensify and provide catharsis for human agonies.



Contemporary writers and their readers (at least those who have not been undone by the glamour of ahistorical identity) are forcefully reminded that literature may seem to ensure universality and transcendence, but they are not blinded to the fact that appearance delivers a most imperfect and treacherous image of reality. In the regions of human cognition, which Americans in general so freely and subconsciously attempt to manipulate as “race,” what seems to be is most often in actuality what does not exist.


In Tell About the South:  The Southern Rage to Explain (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), Fred Hobson theorized that


…the act of telling about the South (particularly when shame and guilt motivate the telling)

can be among other things an act of confession, even catharsis -- of purging oneself of haunting

memories and fears in the hope that they will haunt no more, but always with the dangerous

possibility that to explore and reveal is to dredge up painful memories which without confession

would not be brought o the surface (7-8).


Hobson’s astute observation is nicely complicated in Dorothy Stringer’s “Not Even Past”: Race, Historical Trauma, and Subjectivity in Faulkner, Larsen and Van Vechten (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010). Stringer contends that overlapping of time and text can produce a mapping “between writing and the writing process, between traumatic symptom and critical recognition of trauma, between historical events of extreme violence and subsequent, quotidian psychic life” (2-3).  Stringer’s claim applies as well to visual texts as a species of writing.


As a poet endowed with a very clear sense of historical obligations and the contextual powers of memory and history, Trethewey orients us to meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and hurricanes and the lives of ordinary people by drawing attention to a contemporary function of poetry. The rage to speak is an existential imperative.  Insofar as Beyond Katrina and her four collections of poetry are  quests for psychic balance in the aftermath of devastation, Trethewey seeks to articulate how poetry assists us to answer how we are going to live in the prisonhouses  of nature and language.


She recognizes the centrality of poetics in the act of writing about disasters, both the natural ones and those resulting from man-made actions.


The prologue of her book informs us that the poems “Providence” and “Theories of Time and Space,” which were published in Native Guard, acquired special significance in the act of writing Beyond Katrina.  “Providence” had its origins in family stories about Hurricane Camille’s devastation of the Gulf Coast in 1969, and the closing lines of the poem are carefully worded to indicate how the visual disappears:

                                                In the water, our reflection,



when  I bent to touch it (42)

The word “providence” has particular meaning in Early American literature and in American historiography, and it is crucial that Trethewey alludes to that meaning.


“Providence” has religion-oriented currency in discussions of tragedy, but its secular denotation reminds us that to be provident or to secure a future can include the uses of photography, a subject that is exploited in the poetics of Michael S. Harper and Trethewey.

The pre-Katrina poem “Theories of Time and Space,” which resonates Einstein’s theory of relativity and the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty, opens with the compelling assertion


You can get there from here, though

there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere

you’ve never been…. (Beyond Katrina 5)


became after August 2005, Trethewey confesses, “quite literal: so much of what I’d known of my home was either gone or forever changed” (Beyond Katrina 2). At the end of this poem which initiates the meditation as a “tome of memory,” the couplet “The photograph ---who you were --/ will be waiting when you return” alerts us that photography can be a mode of “writing” and that the poet’s use of family photographs, her brother’s letters, and memory to reconstruct that which has been hidden or invisible is a method of self-conscious interpretation in the effort to create history as a site of memory (lieux de mémoire).  This poem and Beyond Katrina echo at once the representational ironies of Bellocq’s Ophelia and the objectives of Domestic Work and Native Guard.


As an item in Trethewey’s evolving oeuvre, Beyond Katrina is a fascinating addition to the American literary landscape which Philip C. Kolin and Susan Swartwout describe in the editors’ introduction for Hurricane Blues: Poems about Katrina and Rita (Cape Girardeau: Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2006):


Katrina has given poets a unique anatomy lesson about the body politic and the American character of that body. The hurricane gave its name, its terrors, and its anger to a new canon of American poetry and a new sense of national responsibility for rebuilding and restoring (16).


What Kolin and Swartwout mention about change in poetry is a concise gloss on the body of Trethewey’s poetry.


Focusing on the past and present in Gulfport, Beyond Katrina brings the autobiographical act to the foreground. As is the case with American literature in general, much of what we think about Southern literature is influenced by autobiographical writing or writing based on autobiographical experiences. Like such writers as Ellen Douglas, William Faulkner, Sterling D. Plumpp, Willie Morris, Richard Wright, and Eudora Welty –Mississippians who sought to tell a story always untold , Trethewey uses her personal voice to account for aspects of continuity, change, and reconfiguration. Rather than imposing a strict chronological pattern upon the struggles of her mother’s African American family and its negotiations with hurricanes in a racialized and multiracial space, she chooses to be the pilgrim who must gather threads of public history and swatches of family memory in order to quilt a story.

Trethewey does not begin with the migration of her maternal , working-class ancestors from the Mississippi Delta to the Gulf Coast in the early part of the twentieth century but with her own return in 2007 to Gulfport from Atlanta, the place where her grandmother lived in yearning to return “home” after “riding out” and surviving Hurricane Katrina. At ninety-one, her grandmother , upon whose life several of the poems in Domestic Work had been based, “tries to piece together the events of the previous two years. She has layered on the old story of Camille the new story of Katrina. Between the two, there is the suggestion of both a narrative and a metanarrative -- the way she both remembers and forgets, the erasures, and how intricately intertwined memory and forgetting always are” (Beyond Katrina 11). Rita Dove noted in her introduction for Domestic Work that Trethewey had resisted the lure of autobiography; in Beyond Katrina, that lure is necessary to endow the story with authenticity, and Trethewey embraces it with verve. Through the perspectives afforded by the windows of autobiography , she accomplishes the yoking of narrative and metanarrative and explores the devastated but recovering “physical landscape as well as the landscape of our cultural memory”(11).


By attending to the specifics of form and content in Trethewey’s autobiographical efforts to discover the human interiority of suffering hurricanes, we are made aware of what distinguishes her poetry. [ii]Trethewey’s disciplined recycling of the historicizing possibilities implicit in her earlier books of poetry and her brave, honest confrontation of how her brother Joe’s life unraveled along with historic neighborhoods in the years after Hurricane Katrina, in the midst of Gulfport’s becoming again a site for Mississippi’s thriving casino enterprises . The latter aligns a major thread of concern in the book with the sibling tragedy so poignantly documented in John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984), adding significantly to a tradition of history and memory in African American culture. The restorative recycling links the book to the urgency of remembering forgotten portions of Mississippi and Civil War history that was dealt with in Native Guard.  The urgency of historical research in telling how the objectification of the photograph, whether innocent or malicious, functions in cultural memory serves to magnify the kind of critique accomplished in Bellocq’s Ophelia.  The urgency of the family stories rescued in Domestic Work resonate in the direct and indirect ways Trethewey employs visual evidence to deal with her biracial origins and the problematic representation of racial mixing that has enormous import in the twenty-first century.

For Trethewey, writing Beyond Katrina marked an obligatory stage in her growth as a poet, as a contributor to American literature and national memory. Her meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is certainly a “pointing to a destination, some place not far up the road” (123), a poetic and visualized space where in time her readers can recognize, theorize, and fulfill their diverse obligations in the making of history.



In the very recent 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 and sexist perversity we can easily confuse with “love,” and what is plainly erotic. Trethewey is extending inquiry about the hegemony of the visual  begun in her second collection Bellocq’s Ophelia and placing even  greater stress on ekphrasis, on  literary commentary about the visual image as text. The emphasis in Bellocq’s Ophelia was on use of the persona and restoration of voice to the person reduced to visual silence by the use of invasive, stereotyping of the body in photography. Thrall directs attention toward the aesthetic and blatant uses in painting of visual classification, particularly in the casta paintings of Juan Rodríguez Juárez and other artists fascinated by the body, the  evidence of race in  the social constructions of biology. The aesthetic is brought into intimate connection with what the making of class and caste represents.  For Trethewey, the use of poetic self-portraits is necessary rather than arbitrary. She must represent the many layers of relationship with her father who could be the biological Other and the dual agent of bonding and bondage.   The paradox is stunning.


 Ekphrasis is not uncommon  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.[iii] There is much to grain from reading Trethewey’s poems about paintings in tandem with Major’s use of paintings to secure historical and poetic consciousness.

Aware of how verbal imagery has special manipulative power in lyric and narrative poetry, one is obliged to regard Trethewey’s use of profound ekphrasis in those poems in Thrall that allude to  her historical relationship with her poet father Eric Trethewey, who is white. The final stanza of “Enlightenment” (71), for example, is a devastating 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” or exposes the painful black humor of history. Just as the seventeenth and eighteenth century casta paintings expose certain perversities of enslavement, Thrall reveals how germane is  W. J. T. Mitchell’s observation that “representation is exactly the place where ‘life,’ in all its social and subjective complexity, gets into the literary work” (15). [iv] And the great 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. And more progress can be made from reading Michele Elam’s The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011). The surest answer to the great question is in Natasha Trethewey’s motives for representing in the total body of her poetry to date.  Despite change, much in the nation she currently serves as Poet Laureate remains unchanged.  All people are held in thrall by someone’s camera, by someone’s paint brush, by someone’s hegemonic eye. Representation does not allow us to think otherwise.[v]



[i] In this essay, I refer to the following works by Natasha Trethewey ---
Domestic Work. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2000.
Bellocq’s Ophelia. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2002.
Native Guard. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
Thrall. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
[ii] For astute commentaries on Trethewey’s first three collections of poetry, see Thadious M. Davis. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
[iii] Selzer’s article “Reading the Painterly Text: Clarence Major’s ‘The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage” originally appeared in African American Review 33.2 (1999): 209-229. It is reprinted in Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African American Postmodernist. Ed. Bernard W. Bell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.101-131.
[iv] Mitchell, W. J. T. “Representation.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. 2nd ed. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.  11-22.
[v] For considerations of representation and consequences, see John Ernest. Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009;  Gene Andrew Jarrett. Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature.  New York: New York University Press, 2011; Harryette Mullen. The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012.
Anthony, Arthé A.  Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer’s View of the Early Twentieth Century .  Gainesville. University Press of Florida, 2012.
Davis, Thadious M. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region and Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
Elam, Michele. The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011.
Ernest, John. Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Hobson, Fred. Tell About the South:  The Southern Rage to Explain .Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
Jarrett, Gene Andrew.  Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
Kolin,  Philip C. and Susan Swartwout, eds.  Hurricane Blues: Poems about Katrina and Rita. Cape Girardeau: Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2006.
Mitchell, W. J. T. “Representation.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. 2nd ed. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.  11-22.
Mullen, Harryette. The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews.  Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012.
Scarry, Elaine.  Resisting Representation.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Selzer, Linda Ferguson. “Reading the Painterly Text: Clarence Major’s ‘The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage.” African American Review 33.2 (1999): 209-229.
Stringer, Dorothy . “Not Even Past”: Race, Historical Trauma, and Subjectivity in Faulkner, Larsen and Van Vechten.  New York: Fordham University Press, 2010.
Trethewey, Natasha.  Bellocq’s Ophelia. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2002.
_________________. Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
_________________. Domestic Work. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2000.
_________________. Native Guard. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
_________________. Thrall. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

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