Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard
Essay by
Allison J. O'Neill

Natasha Trethewey’s book, Native Guard, defines her life, exposing her Southern heritage. She portrays the struggle surrounding the Civil War and depicts African American lives as lost in Southern history. She personalizes this national history by intertwining it with the history of her life as an interracial person with an African American mother and a Caucasian father. Their marriage was illegal at the time of her birth.

Trethewey’s book brings me home, fills my nose with magnolias. She takes me back to Ship Island’s history, the site of my fifth grade fieldtrip. Trethewey forces me to confront death through the loss of her mother, slaves, and African American soldiers – the Louisiana Native Guard. She grabs the reader’s senses, memory, and emotion through subtle form and forgotten and found images. She takes the simple and twists it into a knot of complexity. She bends a boy’s “humped back curve / of spine into a mound/ like dirt heaped on a grave.” The making of an ant pile transforms into “this reminder of what/ I haven’t done.” A neighbor calling for a cat leads to the speaker’s wonderment; her confident voice might be “enough to call someone home.” A poem that begins with mailing a letter and running an errand ends with death and “how suddenly/ a simple errand, a letter – everything – can go wrong.”

Trethewey does not allow the reader to forget the history of her South. She weaves it into the memory with rhyme like that found in the sonnet “Southern History.”

Before the war, they were happy, he said,

quoting our textbook. (This was senior-year

history class.) The slaves were clothed, fed,

and better off under a master’s care

I watched the words blur on the page. No one

raised a hand, disagreed. Not even me.

It was late; we still had Reconstruction

to cover before the test, and – luckily -

Trethewey’s use of repetition traps the reader in a Southern reality. The title “Miscegenation” emphasizes the repetition of the word Mississippi – a state that held laws prohibiting the marriage and fornication of interracial couples. The poem is in seven couplets. Both lines of the first couplet end with Mississippi. The final lines in the following six couplets also end with Mississippi. The repetition solidifies this state into the mind.

In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;

they went to Ohio to marry , returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name

begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong – mis in Mississippi.

Trethewey demonstrates another form of repetition that she scatters throughout her book. By coloring her poems with derogatory names for African American and interracial people, she successfully engrains the misery of each word.

In the poem “My Mother Dreams Another Country,” Trethewey breathes the names that slapped her mother.

from colored to negro, black still years ahead

It is enough to worry about words like mongrel

and the infertility of mules and mulattoes

In the poem “Southern Gothic,” Trethewey brings to life the words that bruised her own childhood.

in this small southern town – peckerwood and nigger

lover, half-breed and zebra – words that take shape

outside us.

Trethewey summarizes the feeling of mixed identity and race in the poem “Pastoral.” African American poets, peers, surround the speaker, but she is not one of this group.

My father’s white, I tell them, and rural.

You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?

Through sound, form, and image, Trethewey delivers to the reader a captivating photo album of her mother and life without her. “Graveyard of Blues” describes her funeral with end word repetition in the first and second lines and a third line end rhyme. This form continues throughout the poem’s four tercets. The reader is drawn into the scene, stuck to the familiar sound.

It rained the whole time we were laying her down;

Rained from church to grave when we put her down.

The suck of mud at our feet was a hollow sound.

When the preacher called out I held up my hand;

When he called for a witness I raised my hand –

Death stops the body’s work, the soul’s a journeyman.

Trethewey uses the pantoum form as tool to assist the reader in understanding the severity of her poems, her history. The poet’s use of the form in “Incident” adds depth to a racial battle.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,

at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,

the charred grass still green. Then

we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,

a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.

we darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps.

the wicks trembled in their in their fonts of oil

The images in Native Guard hit the reader in continuous pictorial waves demanding attention:

“riggings of shrimp boats,” “bulging with homemade dresses,” “film of red dust around her ankles,” “dry like graveside flowers,” “stepfather’s fist,” “a pot of bones on the stove,” “you slipped through some rift, a hollow,” “constellations of fireflies flickering,” “the dead stand up in stone,” “the sharp elbow, white signature of skin and bone,” “the tongues of dark bells,” “soaked earth red as wine of sacrament,” “his hands the color of dark soil,” “cold lips stitched shut,” “our reflection trembled,” “fish dart among their bones”

The line breaks play a similar role; they move the reader from one truth into another. “Again, The Fields” illustrates the amazing pull found in Trethewey’s writing.

No more muskets, the bone-drag

weariness of marching, the trampled

grass, soaked earth red as the wine

of sacrament. Now, the veteran

turns toward a new field, bright

as domes of the republic. Here,

he has shrugged off the past – his jacket

and canteen flung down in the corner.

The book’s title originates from the first official black unit in the Civil War, the Louisiana Native Guard. One poem describes the life of these men who guarded the Union jail on Ship Island. In the eyes of Trethewey, their story is a landmark for the African American journey to freedom. Therefore, she takes meticulous care in the weaving of this poem. “Native Guard” is told through the eyes of a literate African American guard in stanzas divided by dates. Each stanza bleeds into the next through the slanted repetition of each stanza’s last line in the first line of the following one. Trethewey connects contradicting images, leaving the reader to wonder what happened to this man. Where is his name engraved in history? The poem’s opening is also a version of the final line of the last stanza.

stanza 1, last line

memory – flawed, changeful – that dulls the lash

for the master, sharpens it for the slave

stanza 2, first line

For the slave, having a master sharpens

the bend of work, the way the sergeant

stanza 2, last line

On every page,

his history intersecting with my own.

stanza 3, first line

O how history intersects – my own

stanza 3, last line

dawn pink as new flesh: healing, unfettered.

stanza 4, first line

Today, dawn red as warning. Unfettered

stanza 9, last line

there are things which must be accounted for.

stanza 10, first line

These are things which must be accounted for:

stanza 10, last line

we tread upon, forgetting, Truth be told

stanza 1, first line

Truth be told I do not want to forget

Native Guard is a guide, heavy with memory and elegiac music, who leads the reader on a journey through the South. Trethewey’s detail of and intimacy with the story of her people, African American and white, is rediscovered in every poem. This is a book to be read more than once. With each reading of this collection, the reader unearths a deeper understanding of the South.