“[Trethewey’s poems] dig beneath the surface of history—personal or communal, from childhood or from a century ago—to explore the human struggles that we all face.” —James H. Billington, 13th Librarian of Congress
Layering joy and urgent defiance—against physical and cultural erasure, against white supremacy whether intangible or graven in stone—Trethewey’s work gives pedestal and witness to unsung icons. Monument, Trethewey’s first retrospective, draws together verse that delineates the stories of working class African American women, a mixed-race prostitute, one of the first black Civil War regiments, mestizo and mulatto figures in Casta paintings, Gulf coast victims of Katrina. Through the collection, inlaid and inextricable, winds the poet’s own family history of trauma and loss, resilience and love.
In this setting, each section, each poem drawn from an “opus of classics both elegant and necessary,”* weaves and interlocks with those that come before and those that follow. As a whole, Monument casts new light on the trauma of our national wounds, our shared history. This is a poet’s remarkable labor to source evidence, persistence, and strength from the past in order to change the very foundation of the vocabulary we use to speak about race, gender, and our collective future.
*Academy of American Poets’ chancellor Marilyn Nelson
Two-term U.S. Poet Laureate Trethewey (Thrall) culls some of the finest work from her illustrious two-decade career and presents formally diverse new poems exploring her customary themes. She dredges family history both dark and luminous, reliving the trauma of her mother's murder by her stepfather, reiterating the details as if the outcome might be different. The brilliant, evocative "Genus Narcissus" turns sinister as the poet recalls giving her mother daffodils as a child only to watch them wither and die on the windowsill: "Be taken with yourself,/ they said to me; Die early, to my mother." Trethewey also evocatively imagines her grandmother in 1940s Mississippi, writing "She can fill a room// with a loud clear alto, broom-dance/ right out the back door, her heavy footsteps// a parade beneath the stars." The ekphrastic series "Bellocq's Ophelia" voices a mixed-race prostitute from a famous 1912 photograph by E.J Bellocq as she sits for her portrait: "I try to recall what I was thinking / how not to be exposed, though naked, how/ to wear skin like a garment, seamless." Trethewey's arresting images, urgent tone, and surgically precise language meld with exacting use of rhyme and anaphora create an intensity that propels the poems forward. This collection is ideal for new readers seeking a representative sample of Trethewey's best work.