The title of Natasha Trethewey's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Native Guard (2006) references a regiment of African American soldiers, some of whom were freed slaves, others of whom had enlisted with the Confederate army but had ultimately escaped the rule of white Southerners. This special regiment fought for the Union army during the Civil War, standing guard on Ship Island, off the Mississippi shore, to ensure that Confederate prisoners did not escape.
The title poem of the collection is told in the voice of one of the black soldiers, a freed slave who sees similarity between his role as a soldier and that of a slave. The work is manual labor, just like before, and the rations are also very familiar. The soldier recounts the passage of time as he records his thoughts in a journal-like poem. The poem laments the loss of life, dignity, and freedom. At one point, the poem points out that everyone is a slave to destiny.
Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966 to a white father and a black mother. Her father, Eric Trethewey, a poet, and her mother, Gwendolyn Grimmette, a social worker, divorced when Trethewey was six years old. She and her mother then moved to Georgia, where her mother earned a master's degree and
later remarried. Trethewey's stepfather murdered her mother several years later, in 1985. Trethewey was nineteen at the time. Trethewey's biracial identity as well as her mother's murder are topics that Trethewey often examines in her poems.
Trethewey earned her bachelor's in English from the University of Georgia; her master's in poetry from Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia (where her father was a professor); and an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts. Trethewey taught as an assistant professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama before taking on the professorial position of Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair of Poetry at Emory University in Decatur, Georgia.
Trethewey's work has appeared in many different publications, including The Best American Poetry (2000 and 2003), Agni, American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and the Southern Review. Trethewey's first collection of poems, Domestic Work (2000), won the 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry. Her second collection, Bellocq's Ophelia (2002), received the 2003 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, was a finalist for the Academy of American Poets' James Laughlin and Lenore Marshall prizes, and was named a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association. Her 2006 collection, Native Guard, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
If this war be forgotten, I ask in the name of all things sacred what shall men remember?November 1862
Truth be told, I do not want to forget
anything of my former life: the landscape's
song of bondage—dirge in the river's throat
where it churns into the Gulf, wind in trees
choked with vines. I thought to carry with me 5
want of freedom though I had been freed,
remembrance not constant recollection.
Yes: I was born a slave, at harvest time,
in the Parish of Ascension; I've reached
thirty-three with history of one younger 10
inscribed upon my back. I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory—flawed, changeful—that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave.December 1862
For the slave, having a master sharpens 15
the bend into work, the way the sergeant
moves us now to perfect battalion drill,
dress parade. Still, we're called supply units
not infantry—and so we dig trenches,
haul burdens for the army no less heavy 20
than before. I heard the colonel call it
nigger work. Half rations make our work
familiar still. We take those things we need
from the Confederates' abandoned homes:
salt, sugar, even this journal, near full 25with someone else's words, overlapped now,
crosshatched beneath mine. On every page,
his story intersecting with my own.January 1863
O how history intersects—my own
berth upon a ship called the Northern Star 30
and I'm delivered into a new life,
Fort Massachusetts: a great irony—
both path and destination of freedom
I'd not dared to travel. Here, now, I walk
ankle-deep in sand, fly-bitten, nearly 35
smothered by heat, and yet I can look out
upon the Gulf and see the surf breaking,
tossing the ships, the great gunboats bobbing
on the water. And are we not the same,
slaves in the hands of the master, destiny? 40
—night sky red with the promise of fortune,
dawn pink as new flesh: healing, unfettered.January 1863
Today, dawn red as warning. Unfettered
supplies, stacked on the beach at our landing,
washed away in the storm that rose too fast, 45
caught us unprepared. Later, as we worked,
I joined in the low singing someone raised
to pace us, and felt a bond in labor
I had not known. It was then a dark man
removed his shirt, revealed the scars, crosshatched 50
like the lines in this journal, on his back.
It was he who remarked at how the ropes
cracked like whips on the sand, made us take note
of the wild dance of a tent loosed by wind.
We watched and learned. Like any shrewd master, 55
we know now to tie down what we will keep.February 1863
We know it is our duty now to keep
white men as prisoners—rebel soldiers,
would-be masters. We're all bondsmen here, each
to the other. Freedom has gotten them 60
captivity. For us, a conscription
we have chosen—jailors to those who still
would have us slaves. They are cautious, dreading
the sight of us. Some neither read nor write,
are laid too low and have few words to send 65
but those I give them. Still, they are wary
of a negro writing, taking down letters.
X binds them to the page—a mute symbol
like the cross on a grave. I suspect they fear
I'll listen, put something else down in ink. 70March 1863
I listen, put down in ink what I know
they labor to say between silences
too big for words: worry for beloveds—
My Dearest, how are you getting along—
what has become of their small plots of land— 75
did you harvest enough food to put by?
They long for the comfort of former lives—
I see you as you were, waving goodbye.
Some send photographs—a likeness in case
the body can't return. Others dictate 80
harsh facts of this war: The hot air carries
the stench of limbs, rotten in the bone pit.
Flies swarm—a black cloud. We hunger, grow weak.
When men die, we eat their share of hardtack.April 1863
When men die, we eat their share of hardtack 85
trying not to recall their hollow sockets,
the worm-stitch of their cheeks. Today we buried
the last of our dead from Pascagoula,
and those who died retreating to our ship—
white sailors in blue firing upon us 90
as if we were the enemy. I'd thought
the fighting over, then watched a man fall
beside me, knees-first as in prayer, then
another, his arms outstretched as if borne
upon the cross. Smoke that rose from each gun 95
seemed a soul departing. The Colonel said:
an unfortunate incident; said:
their names shall deck the page of history.June 1863
Some names shall deck the page of history
as it is written on stone. Some will not. 100
Yesterday, word came of colored troops, dead
on the battlefield at Port Hudson; how
General Banks was heard to say I have
no dead there, and left them, unclaimed. Last night,
I dreamt their eyes still open—dim, clouded 105
as the eyes of fish washed ashore, yet fixed—
staring back at me. Still, more come today
eager to enlist. Their bodies—haggard
faces, gaunt limbs—bring news of the mainland.
Starved, they suffer like our prisoners. Dying, 110
they plead for what we do not have to give.
Death makes equals of us all: a fair master.August 1864
Dumas was a fair master to us all.
He taught me to read and write: I was a man-
servant, if not a man. At my work, 115
I studied natural things—all manner
of plants, birds I draw now in my book: wren,
willet, egret, loon. Tending the gardens,
I thought only to study live things, thought
never to know so much about the dead. 120
Now I tend Ship Island graves, mounds like dunes
that shift and disappear. I record names,
send home simple notes, not much more than how
and when—an official duty. I'm told
it's best to spare most detail, but I know 125
there are things which must be accounted for.1865
These are things which must be accounted for:
slaughter under the white flag of surrender—
black massacre at Fort Pillow; our new name,
the Corps d'Afrique—words that take the native 130
from our claim; mossbacks and freedmen—exiles
in their own homeland; the diseased, the maimed,
every lost limb, and what remains: phantom
ache, memory haunting an empty sleeve;
the hog-eaten at Gettysburg, unmarked 135
in their graves; all the dead letters, unanswered;
untold stories of those that time will render
mute. Beneath battlefields, green again,
the dead molder—a scaffolding of bone
we tread upon, forgetting. Truth be told. 140
Trethewey divides her poem "Native Guard" into time frames, beginning with November 1862. In the first stanza, in the voice of an African American soldier, Trethewey provides the background of this soldier, his life prior to enlisting in the army. The soldier reflects on his life as a slave. First Trethewey provides a sense of the physical landscape of a Southern plantation that sits on the side of a river. The Gulf of Mexico is mentioned, setting the scene in one of the gulf states, along the shoreline. The soldier was once a slave, but he mentions that he was already freed earlier in 1862. However, he seems to be so newly freed that he has to remind himself that he is no longer a slave.
The soldier then recounts some of his memories of having been a slave ever since being born into slavery. Marks upon his back, signs of having been whipped, are proof of his history. The soldier makes a reference to Ascension Parish, located in the southeastern part of Louisiana (which has parishes instead of counties). The soldier is thirty-three years old. He compares the marks on his back, which have recorded his history up to now, with the marks he will now make with ink on paper. This is his new form of history taking, as a power that was once the slaveholder's has become his own.
A month has passed, and the soldier now mentions a sergeant, comparing the sergeant to a slave master. Both the sergeant and the slave master have their ways of bringing their men around to obeying orders. The soldier and his fellow mates learn to march under the sergeant's drills, but instead of being given guns, the black soldiers are told to dig ditches and work like mules, carrying supplies. The soldier suggests that the top officer over the black soldiers uses derogatory racial slurs when referring to them. In addition to having to listen to the verbal abuse, something they became accustomed to as slaves, the black soldiers are given only half as much food as their white counterparts are granted. This too, the soldier says, is a familiar slave routine. The soldier admits that in order to supplement their supplies, they steal from abandoned homes. This implies that the regiment is not yet on Ship Island, as there are no homes there. Not only do the black soldiers take food from these houses, but also this soldier found in one the paper and ink that he needed to write his journal. The journal this soldier found is already written on, so he crosses out the other person's words (suggesting that these are a white person's writings) and writes his own thoughts over them. This provides an image of the black man rewriting history or possibly just telling it from another perspective.
Two sections of this poem have the same date, that of January 1863. In the first section, the soldier mentions a ship that has taken him to Ship Island. The name of the boat and the name of the fort on Ship Island remind the soldier of the North, where many black people live free, the destination of many runaway slaves in the South. This soldier never dared attempt to take that road to freedom, and yet, he is delivered to a place that suggests that journey, at least in name. Though the environment of Ship Island is not easy to endure, as it is too hot and the air is filled with biting insects, the soldier enjoys the open expanse of the horizons, where he can look out across the gulf and dream. On the water he sees the boats that have arrived from the North, filled with Union soldiers who have come to the South to help free the slaves. Then he ponders the question of slavery. Are he and his fellow African Americans the only ones who are slaves? Isn't everyone bound by fate? At this point in the poem, the soldier is considering the equality that everyone is born with as well as the similar patterns that everyone shares in dealing with the world and one's own destiny. He sees the potential for a positive future, a new life that promises to make him feel better as he more fully realizes that he is free.
In the second stanza of January 1863, the soldier is not so hopeful. The dawn of the previous stanza, the one that promised good fortune, is now seen as a warning of danger and trouble. Supplies that were dropped off on the beach were not put in safe storage, and the men were unaware of the possible consequences. A storm came up quickly and washed the supplies away. The supplies needed to be tied down, the soldier now realizes. This image reminds him, once again, of how tied down he had been as a slave. The next day, as the men work, they begin to sing. The rhythm of the song and the sound of their voices brings them together, making them feel as one, buoyed by a sense of community that the soldier had never felt before. A fellow soldier takes off his shirt in the heat and exposes scars on his back that everyone recognizes as the marks of a whip. The ropes that are used to tie down the supplies, the other soldier points out, make sounds similar to that of the whip. This second soldier also points out how their tents blow in the wind, threatening to take off in some wild dance. These are all reminders for the soldier that if he wants to keep something, he must learn to tether it.
An irony opens this stanza—the fact that a group of black soldiers is now standing guard over a group of white Confederate soldiers. These white rebels would have been the masters of the black soldiers were it not for the Civil War. Though the white soldiers are prisoners, the soldier comments that they are equal in a strange way; their positions could change so quickly, one taking the other's place. The white soldiers' fight for freedom has led them to be jailed.
The white prisoners are wary of their black captors and try not to look at them. The soldier narrator, realizing that most of the white men are illiterate, senses his own power over them, as he, at least, has the power of words. The white prisoners cannot write letters home except through the skills of the black narrator, who was once their slave. They do not know whether to trust him, however. The soldier thinks that they believe he is writing more than they tell him, but they can only add their signatures, each using no more than an X. That is their only power when it comes to the literary process; they are in the black soldier's hands.
The narrator details some of the passages from the letters he has written for the white prisoners. They write letters to their wives, asking them how they are doing, how their land is doing, and whether the wives were able to bring in the crop, to provide the family with enough food to last. The soldier narrator mentions that he hears the white prisoners saying more than they are actually telling him; he can read between the lines, such as when the prisoners want to send photographs home so that their wives will remember them should they never return. The prisoners remember their wives waving to them as they left home. The significance of these last images is that the soldiers were departing as if they would be gone for good. Other prisoners talk of more morbid things, like the short supply of food, the oppressive heat, and the smell of death all around them. Their own physical prowess, some of the prisoners tell their families, is failing them.
The narrator takes up the theme of death. As the soldiers die, there is more food for the rest of them. There is also mention of a battle at Pascagoula, which is close to the southern shores of Mississippi. In this battle, the black regiment proved that they were capable of fighting. The narrator mentions that many died, and he talks about burying the dead. There is a twist to this story, however. As the black soldiers retreated to their ship, white Union soldiers (who were supposed to be on the black regiment's side) began shooting at them, killing many more. The narrator heard the white colonel in charge of the black regiment make a comment that fell short of describing the way the narrator felt at seeing this senseless killing; the colonel's words described the event as if it were trivial.
Two months later, the memorial that was supposed to bear the dead black soldiers's names engraved in stone still does not exist. There are memorials to white soldiers, however. There is mention of another battle, this one at Port Hudson, which is located in Louisiana not far from Baton Rouge, along the Mississippi River. Around 5,000 Union soldiers and some 700 Confederate soldiers died in this battle. Black regiments were involved in this battle, but, according to the poem, the commander in charge, a General Banks, paid little attention to the black soldiers who died there. The narrator remembers them in his mind, imagining a battlefield scene where a black soldier laid unburied.
Despite the prejudice and the dismissal of the sacrifices that the black soldiers are making, more black recruits come to the island, ready to give their lives. They do this because their lives are nothing but suffering anyway. They are starving and are willing to take their chances on the battlefield. The narrator closes this stanza by repeating his earlier claim that whether prisoner or guard, whether white man or black, whether free black or slave, they all share the same lot. They all will soon face their deaths.
The name of Francis Dumas is mentioned in the opening lines of this stanza, as the narrator was once a slave of Dumas's. This master—also a black man—was good, the narrator states. Dumas is the one who taught the narrator to read and write, and he also learned about nature from Dumas, who, in other words, helped the narrator to open his mind to other possibilities beyond labor and slavery. The narrator claims that while he lived as a slave, he focused most of his thoughts on life. But his life has drastically changed: Now that he is a free man, all he deals with is death. He buries the dead and tends to their graves, which the wind is constantly disrupting. He writes letters to the wives and families of the men who are dead, keeping the horrid details to himself, though he senses that the families crave more information. He considers that the things the families are not told are like other details about the war that will not be expressed. It is as if the narrator already knows that the black regiments, in particular, will be forgotten.
Possibly a year has passed. The Civil War is either over or at least near its end. The narrator takes the time, then, to list the things that need to be said about the war and his experiences. He wants to be the voice for those things that he has been told not to say. He talks about mass killings and about the maimed. He wonders what will happen to the black soldiers who are now freed but have no homes. He mentions the dead black soldiers who were left on the battlefields to rot or to be eaten by wild animals. Soldiers missing limbs still feel them as if they were still attached, just as the soldiers who were not killed remember those who were. Missing are not just the bodies but also the memories of those soldiers, who, if they were lucky enough to be buried, do not have names on their graves. No one has time to record their stories, so who will remember them? Their bodies have now turned the battlefields green, and traces of their lives have been all but erased.
The theme of death permeates Trethewey's poem. Beyond the death that symbolizes the inevitable end that everyone must eventually face, there is also the senseless death that comes from war, prejudice, and negligence. With the setting being the Civil War, one would expect the topic of death to be present, and Trethewey indeed goes far with this theme, talking about massacres and slaughter—huge losses that insinuate overkill. There are men who die on the field of battle as well as men who die of disease because they have been locked up in cells that are unfit for living. The men are cramped into spaces that are poorly ventilated, and they are poorly fed; sanitation is lacking, and the heat is sweltering and suffocating. There are also the deaths of soldiers shot by their own comrades.
A presence of psychological death can also be found in this poem. As Confederate soldiers rot away in prison, they lose hope of ever returning to their families. They write letters home and have visions of their wives while strongly sensing that they will never see them again. Hints of the death of dignity can also be found, as the black soldiers realize that their names will not be remembered because they are discounted as humans, deemed unworthy of even a body count when they fall dead in the fields.
Prejudice as a theme is apparent throughout the poem. The black men in the regiment might be freed slaves, but they have not escaped the prejudice that was partially responsible for their being held captive in the first place. They may have been promised freedom, but that freedom came with the price of prejudice. They soon learn that they are the cheap soldiers, the ones who receive less pay and less food than their white counterparts. They work harder, performing all the heavy labor and dirty jobs that need to be done, like tending the dead and their graves, cleaning the toilets, and digging daily wells. They are referred to in derogatory terms not only by the men they work with but also by their supervisors. They remain uncounted and forgotten after they fall. While the white soldiers come and go, stopping on Ship Island only for a few days, the black soldiers are stationed in that unhealthy place for three years. They are mistrusted not because of their deeds or their morals but because of the color of their skin. When given a chance to fight, they prove not only their worthiness but also their valor, volunteering to take the front positions, like pawns in a game of chess. When they turn around and look for cover, they are met by their own fellow Union soldiers shooting at them.
Topics For Further Study
- To give your classmates a more intimate sense of what it was like to be a slave, find a book with one or more slave narratives—stories told by slaves—and commit a passage or two to memory. Then recite the passages in front of your class, taking on the persona of the person who wrote the narrative.
- Read another black poet's work, choosing someone such as Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, Maya Angelou, or Nikki Giovanni. Then compare that poet's work with Trethewey's. How do their voices compare or contrast? Are there similarities in the topics that they focus on? Is one poet more personal than the other? What time frames do they write about? What are the social contexts surrounding their lives and their poetry? Write a paper on your findings.
- Read about black soldiers' experiences in the Civil War. List the battles they were involved with and position those battles on a map. Find as many statistics as you can concerning the number of black soldiers in each regiment and the numbers of deaths. Also find out how many medals of honor were won. In what battles were they won? Were any black soldiers dismissed dishonorably? What role did black soldiers play in the Confederate army? Where did they fight? Place as much information as you can on your map and then use the map throughout a presentation as you explain the details that you have uncovered.
- Research the layout of Ship Island during the Civil War. Where were the prisoners kept? Where did the guards sleep and eat? What did Fort Massachusetts look like, and what was it used for? Create a three-dimensional model of the island and its fort. Make the model as realistic as possible to give your fellow students an idea of what life was like during the three years that the Native Guard lived on the island.
Captivity and Freedom
The double-sided theme of captivity and freedom is played out in the poem in different ways. The narrator of this poem tells the readers that he has spent thirty-three years of his life as a captive. When he is finally given his freedom, he realizes that his freedom is not much different than his captivity, as he is still told what to do and where to go. He still works at very difficult manual labor. He is poorly fed and has the constant fear of death hanging over his head. He might be free, but white people still hate him and treat him like he is less than human. However, he is free in his mind, as his master was an educated black man who taught him to read and write and to study nature. Yet, his body still belongs to the army. The white Confederate prisoners are also caught in this irony. Where once they were free men who had enslaved black men, now they are held captive and are at the mercy of the freed slaves. Thus, the white captives certainly feel they have reason to be wary of the black soldiers. They spent most of their lives belittling black slaves, and now they must depend on black soldiers for their lives. They have lost their freedom to choose whom they want to deal with and whom they can ignore.
As a person comes close to the end of his or her life, there is often a certain question: Will I be remembered? Trethewey wonders about remembrance in "Native Guard". Who will remember this regiment of black soldiers? How many history books skip over this portion of the past and others like it? Trethewey, then, takes up the cause of remembering. She wants to tell the story of the Louisiana Native Guard. Unlike the generals and colonels, she wants to count the heads, inscribe the names, bury the dead, and write about the experiences of at least one soldier who spent three years of his life helping, as best as he was allowed, to fight in the Civil War. What is a life, this poem seems to ask, if it is not remembered? As the narrator of this poem helps the white illiterate soldiers write home to their families, asking their wives and children not to forget them, Trethewey also writes home, in a way, asking her readers not to forget these men. The narrator says that he remembers his youth by the scars on his back, but now that he is thirty-three and a man, he wants to remember in a different way. So he crosses out the writing of a white man and tells a similar story but through a different perspective, a perspective that, if not written down, would never be remembered.
"Native Guard" is written in the form of a sonnet sequence. The word sonnet comes from the Italian and means "little song." As a poetic form, a sonnet consists of a logical progression of several verses, with a total of fourteen lines. Traditionally, a sonnet has a rhyming scheme, however, Trethewey's sonnet sequence is unrhymed. Her poem contains ten beats to each line, clustered in two beats per foot, with five feet per line, in what is called iambic pentameter (a scheme often used by Shakespeare). The sonnet was considered an old-fashioned form in the early twentieth century, especially when free verse (which has no rhyming or standard beat) became a recognized form. Free verse, poets argued, was more like normal speech or conversation and was thus appropriate for the confessional type of poetry that was then popular. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, some poets are turning back to the sonnet form, with and without rhyming patterns. Some twentieth-century poets who helped to modernize the sonnet form are Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. E. Cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and Seamus Heaney.
Most sonnets are divided into two parts. In the first part, the theme of the poem is provided. It is also in this first part that the poet (or speaker of the poem) raises a question. In the second part of the poem, the speaker attempts to answer that question or at least makes the point of the poem very clear. This transition between the presenting of the problem or question and the subsequent making of a point is called the turn of the sonnet. Such a turn can also be found within a broader sonnet sequence; the turn in Trethewey's sonnet sequence could likely come between the two verses that are both identified as "January 1863." From the beginning of the poem up until the first "January 1863" verse, the speaker talks about his past: what his life was like until he arrived on Ship Island. He mentions his enslavement and then his so-called freedom as a Union soldier. From the second verse called "January 1863" until the end of the poem, the speaker goes into the details of the conditions he faces as a black soldier on the island.
Repetition of Lines
Each verse of Trethewey's poem ends with a line that is then to some degree repeated in the first line of the next verse. Some of the same words or images are used in both lines, thus tying the verses together, carrying over similar themes. At the end of the first verse, she uses the image of a master and a slave and the concept of sharpening, which is again repeated in the first line of the second verse. The lines are not exact replicas of one another, but they are related. The same is true
for each of the following verses. Sometimes the repeated lines are twisted slightly, using similar words but changing the images, thus providing the reader with different interpretations.
Fictional Character as Speaker
The speaker of a poem is not always the same as the voice of the poet. This is obvious in Trethewey's poem, as the fictional speaker confesses that he was once a slave and is now a soldier in the Louisiana Native Guard. Readers gain further knowledge of the speaker as the poem progresses. He is a free man now, one who can read and write. By taking on the persona of such a speaker, the poet can provide more intimate details of what it was like to be a black man on Ship Island, having to watch over the white Confederate soldiers, many of whom used to own slaves. Readers can see the conditions through the speaker's eyes, rather than reading lines that the poet could only have written through historic accounts. The fact that the speaker is literate and keeps a diary gives the poem vitality and veritableness, as if readers are looking over the man's shoulder and witnessing the writing as well as the experiences that the speaker is recording. If the poet had written from a third-person perspective, as an observer from a distance, the poem might not have been as touching or moving.
Ship Island and the Native Guard
Sitting twelve miles off the shores of Mississippi, Ship Island, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, became the site of a Union army presence in the South during the Civil War. Shortly after the Union army lost the first battle of the Civil War, Major General Benjamin F. Butler was given permission to set up a volunteer army based on Ship Island. His plan was to set up a camp there, from where he and his army would then take control of Mobile, Alabama, and eventually New Orleans. Butler brought two regiments with him from the North. Other troops followed; but most of the white regiments came and went in a matter of days or weeks. In contrast, a unit of black soldiers, referred to as the Louisiana Native Guard, assembled on Ship Island and stayed there for three years.
The Native Guard arrived in 1863. The unit was made up of recent slaves and those who had been previously freed. They mostly came from Louisiana, especially the New Orleans area. When the Native Guard moved onto Ship Island, they were met with hostilities from white Union soldiers already stationed there. Noting that the tension between the two groups was counterproductive, the military leaders eventually decided to remove the white Union soldiers to other outposts, leaving the black Native Guard the only army unit there.
The prison situation on Ship Island was first set up in 1862. The prison was used for Confederate prisoners of war as well as for Union soldiers who had committed serious crimes. The number of prisoners on the island peaked in April 1865. By June of that year, all prisoners had been sent to other locations.
Life for the Native Guard soldiers was not easy on Ship Island. They had to endure stifling heat, powerful thunderstorms, mosquitoes, and a lot of blowing sand. Health issues led to the deaths of many of the soldiers, including both prisoners and guards. From among the Confederate prisoners, 153 died; from among the Union side, 232 died on the island. In all, over 180,000 African Americans fought in 163 different units during the Civil War.
At the time of the Civil War, Ship Island was one solid island. However, in 1969, Hurricane Camille, a major storm that hit the Mississippi shore, split the island in two. The islands are now called East Ship Island and West Ship Island. Today, West Ship Island is a tourist attraction. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused a thirty-foot wave surge that washed over the island, taking most buildings, notably except Fort Massachusetts, with it.
Compare & Contrast
- 1860s: Civil War breaks out in the United States between the North and the South. At stake is the abolition of slavery, the first step toward equality for blacks.
- 1860s: Small numbers of black soldiers fight in the Civil War between the states. Units composed of black soldiers are segregated from white units.
Today: Black soldiers, both men and women, fight alongside white soldiers in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- 1860s: Publications by black authors are rare. Frances "Frank" Rollin (1847-1901) writes the first biography of a freeborn African American, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany, published in 1868.
Today: Publications by black authors are prevalent. Trethewey, an African American woman, wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007. Other well-known contemporary black authors are Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Edwidge Danticat.
Fort Massachusetts, on Ship Island, provides the setting for Trethewey's poem. The fort, a sort of horseshoe-shaped structure, sits on the edge of the water on West Ship Island (formerly the western side of Ship Island). Construction of the fort began in 1859. Two years later, through the work of a hundred-man crew of masons and carpenters, the stone walls stood approximately eight feet high. That same year, Mississippi seceded from the Union, and a band of Confederate militia stormed the island and took over the incomplete fort. A short battle was fought on the island in 1861, when the Union battleship USS Massachusetts drew up to the island and exchanged fire with that band of Confederate soldiers, who had brought cannons to the half-built fort. Neither side declared a victory. Shortly afterward, in the middle of September, the Confederate soldiers abandoned the fort and the island completely.
By the middle of 1862 the Union occupied Ship Island and its still half-built fort, with about 18,000 troops stationed there off and on. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resumed the construction of the fort at this time and also erected forty other buildings that were used as hospitals, barracks, and a mess hall. The construction on the fort continued until 1866, at which time the fort remained incomplete. It has been assumed that the fort was referred to as Fort Massachusetts in honor of the first Union ship to try to take control of the island, though the name was not officially applied.
Today, Fort Massachusetts is a tourist attraction. With time and saltwater having worn away at the mortar holding the stones together, a restoration project was established in 2001. Although it was completely inundated with water during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the fort remains a strong reminder of the past.
Major Francis E. Dumas
Major Dumas was one the highest-ranking African American soldiers to see battle in the Civil War. He was an educated man who spoke five languages, including English and French, and a rich plantation owner who had his own slaves. He freed and then enlisted one hundred of his slaves and created his own band in the Native Guard. From January to July 1863, Dumas served on Ship Island. After retiring from the military, Dumas became involved in politics in Louisiana, losing by two votes in seeking his party's nomination to run for governor in 1868.
Overview of African Americans Involved in the Civil War
It has been estimated that by the end of the Civil War, at least 180,000 African Americans were enlisted in the Union army, representing about 10 percent of servicemen. Many of these soldiers served in artillery and infantry like their white counterparts, but the African American soldiers had to cope with the extra burden of prejudice. Their pay was considerably less than that of their white counterparts, with many black soldiers earning only half the pay of the white soldiers. And although they were trained to fight and eventually proved their courage and ability, black soldiers were often given the dirtiest of jobs to complete in camp. Statistics concerning mortalities estimate that one-third of all black soldiers who served during the Civil War lost their lives. African American soldiers were part of almost every major battle between 1863 and 1864. The most famous battle in which black troops fought was the confrontation at Fort Wagner in South Carolina on July 18, 1863. There, a black regiment volunteered to climb the walls of the fort and engage in hours of hand-to-hand combat with Confederate soldiers. Although they were eventually driven back, the black soldiers were highly commended for their bravery. Another impressive battle, one in which fourteen black soldiers received the Medal of Honor, occurred at New Market Heights, Virginia,on September 29, 1864.
On December 20, 1860, after Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States and declared that the U.S. government could not endure slavery, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Within two months, the states of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed. A few months later, on February 9, 1861, the Confederate States of America was formed, with Jefferson Davis as its president. This act in and of itself did not mark the beginning of the Civil War; that would follow on April 12, 1861, when the Confederates fired cannons on Fort Sumter, off the shores of Charleston, South Carolina, which had previously been controlled by Union forces. Five days later, Virginia also seceded from the Union, as followed by Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. For four bloody years, battles were fought up and down the East Coast. After casualties of an estimated 360,000 Union soldiers and 258,000 Confederate soldiers, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. In a sign of victory for the Union, on April 10, 1865, the American flag was raised over Fort Sumter, where the war began. Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Boothe at Ford's Theatre, in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865.
Trethewey's collection Native Guard has been critically acclaimed and was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The collection contains poems about Trethewey's relationship with her mother (who was murdered when Trethewey was a teenager), the poet's biracial experience in Mississippi, and the racial history of Mississippi. The latter topic is explored in the collection's title poem. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, describes Trethewey's collection as "exacting and resonant." Seaman pays special attention to the title poem and comments on how harrowing some of the images contained in "Native Guard" are. She refers to Trethewey's "bayonet-sharp lyrics" and "loaded phrases and philosophical metaphors."
Ange Mlinko, writing in Poetry magazine, states that "Native Guard" attempts to bring together "the racial and the rational, as if to heal the old irrational wound inflicted by the state." This is a reference to the lack of a memorial to recognize the sacrifices that the Native Guard made during the Civil War. Although Mlinko applauds Trethewey's attempts to memorialize the black soldiers, she finds that Trethewey's form becomes a little "too pat" in the process.
David Wojahn, writing in the Southern Review, finds that "Native Guard" is "a superbly rendered group of unrhymed sonnets." The Black Issues Book Review critic Kelly Norman Ellis in turn describes Trethewey as a "technically sound poet" whose sequence of verses in "Native Guard" demonstrates "a masterful weaving of sound and sense." Ellis concludes with the statement that in Trethewey's poems, "each word, each line represents syllables uttered in the mouths of those silenced by grief, pain and history."
Another reviewer who finds reasons to praise Trethewey's poetry is Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, writing for the Washington Post. Wellington states that the poet "has a gift for squeezing the contradictions of the South into very tightly controlled lines." Regarding the title poem and its sonnet sequence, Wellington remarks, "The graceful form conceals a gritty subject." In conclusion, the reviewer states that Trethewey still has room to improve her written voice, as the poet "may have only scratched the surface of her remarkable talent."
"What matters most in Trethewey's poem," writes the critic Carrie Shipers for the Prairie Schooner, "is the muscular eloquence of its first-person speaker." After lauding the poet behind that voice, Shipers states, "In lesser hands, this poem might have allowed the historical information to become a burden instead of an incentive." Trethewey, however, uses restraint, allowing the reader "to experience the speaker's consciousness rather than merely to imagine it." Shipers also finds that "the major stength of these poems is the compelling connections Trethewey makes between personal experience and cultural memory."
Hart is a published author of more than twenty books. In this essay, she examines the various examples of irony that the speaker in "Native Guard" exposes.
In Trethewey's poem "Native Guard," the speaker sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly draws attention to the irony of his life and of the situations that he finds himself in. Some of the ironies are simple, some rather complex. Some of them are slightly baffling, while others are downright lethal. The one thing they all have in common is the power to make readers stop and think.
Irony can take various forms. One type of irony can be depicted as the difference between what is said and what is meant. This type of irony is sometimes referred to as sarcasm, occurring, for example, when a speaker tells a person that he or she looks good when it is obvious that the person is ridiculously disheveled. The speaker in this instance did not really mean what he said. Another type of irony can be reflected through the difference between what is expected and what actually occurs. This form is called situational irony, and it is this form that is most prevalent and significant in Trethewey's poem. An example of situational irony might be when a straight-A student fails to pass a final exam in math while an almost-failing student earns the highest grade on that same exam. The math teacher might then state that this outcome is indeed ironic.
Throughout Trethewey's poem, the speaker appears to be constantly amazed at the turns in his life. These turns sometimes send him in a direction 180 degrees different from where he had expected to go. Through these ironic twists of fate, the speaker comes to some interesting conclusions about life. The speaker finds that although on the surface, people can appear to be quite different from one another, everyone faces ironic changes, which can transfer a person from what he was into what he never guessed he would become. In this way, the speaker discovers that on some deeper level, everyone is equal.
The first ironic statement of this poem occurs in the first verse, when the speaker talks of wanting freedom. While one might expect the speaker to be happy to simply enjoy his freedom once he has it, he expresses that he wished to retain that feeling of wanting even after being released from bondage. The memories of having been a slave are so profound that he cannot shake them—but the speaker even says that he does not want to shake them. He wants to remember them all. He is free now, but he is not like other free men who have never been slaves. Free men who have never been enslaved do not even think of themselves as free because they were born that way. Only those who have been released from slavery truly know what it feels like to be free. The speaker's freedom is much more intense because he has known slavery.
What Do I Read Next?
- In 2002, Trethewey published her second collection of poems, Bellocq's Ophelia. The collection is narrated by a light-skinned biracial woman who works as a prostitute in New Orleans prior to World War I.
- Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, playwright, and essayist. Her 2005 collection of poems American Sublime was a runner-up for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. The poems in this collection cover various aspects of African American lives in the nineteenth century.
- Joyce Pettis's African American Poets: Lives, Works, and Sources (2002) provides readers with a quick snapshot of poets from the eighteenth century to today. Some of the poets included in this book are Maya Angelou, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Nikki Giovanni, and Jupiter Hammon. The book contains biographical as well as critical material.
- The poet Ai, who describes herself as a mix of African American, Japanese, and Native American, won the National Book Award for her collection of poems Vice (1999). In this collection, Ai takes on the voices of famous characters (such as Marilyn Monroe and the legendary comedian Lenny Bruce) as well as lesser-known common criminals.
- The Classic Slave Narratives (2002), edited by the renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., provides readers with some of the best of the written personal accounts of slavery. Thousands of these narratives have been chronicled; Gates provides four of the most outstanding ones.
In the same first verse is another irony, this one making reference to history. While the speaker was a slave, his history was scrawled across his back, imposed by the whips of his master. The whip was the tool of discipline, the voice of the master, which was imposed upon the slave through torture. After he is freed, however, the speaker voices his new history with a pen and ink. With the markings of the whip, his history was interpreted through symbolism, scars that could arouse sympathy or disgust. That history was imposed by some other voice, one that made the speaker of the poem submissive. With a pen and ink, though, the story can be better represented, in words that tell a story that is closer to the truth, as the speaker conjures them through his own voice. The irony is that the pen, as the speaker clarifies it, helps to dull the marks (and therefore the previous history) of the whip. The master now, who once was the primary voice, is put in a subjugated role because the pen allows the freed slave to find his own voice. If considered in isolation, the whip would seem more powerful or lethal than the pen—but as symbols, the pen, which finally gives the speaker a voice, proves to be the more powerful. This is because the pen tells the truth. People can look at a slave's back and think that the slave was whipped because he did not obey his master or because he had done some dreadful wrong. At the same time, the slave might know that the scars on his back are a sign of injustice. The whip marks, in other words, can be interpreted in many different ways. They are abstractions of events that are not clearly defined. They also are only read when and if the slave removes his shirt, which means that not many people ever see them. But when the slave writes his story down on paper, there is not such a wide margin of interpretation. Words are more specific. If published, they also are communicated to a wider audience. Whereas the whip insinuates that the master is the more powerful, the written story of a slave can tell another side of the story. The slave has feelings. The slave is human and is deserving of civil rights. So with a pen and the knowledge of written language, the slave turns out to have a much more powerful weapon than the master had with his whip.
In the second verse, the speaker points out the irony of his freedom. He has been released from the plantation; but he has found that he is in the hands of yet another master. This one is the army sergeant, who yells and demands that the freed slaves obey him under threat of yet other punishments. How free is he, the speaker wonders, if he must bend himself to the sergeant's demands? And although he is in the army, he is not really a soldier, as he is not given a gun. Instead he is handed a shovel to dig ditches. The irony here is that he is given the title of soldier and yet he is no more than a laborer, as he was before when he was still a slave. In actuality, he has neither more freedom nor more responsibility or trust. His title has switched from slave to soldier, but this changes only the name of things. He is still belittled by derogative words and still discriminated against in terms of food and salary. As the poet ends this verse, Trethewey brings out the fact that the speaker, a black freed slave, has confiscated a Confederate man's journal, writing his story over the white man's. The two lives do not parallel one another, but rather they intersect, barely touching one another, only momentarily crossing. Both men have lives, and they are both human, but they do not seem to share much common ground. An irony here, then, is that the two men do share a degree of common ground, as the rest of the poem will reveal. Their lives are very much the same, especially as the Civil War rages on.
In the third verse, the speaker comments on the irony of his having taken a ship called the Northern Star, a ship that transports him to Ship Island, where Fort Massachusetts awaits him. Both the Northern Star and Fort Massachusetts remind him of the North of the United States, which stands as a symbol of freedom for slaves. It is the slave's dream to be taken out of bondage and freed in the North, where people supposedly await with open arms, ready to take off the chains and shackles from the slave's feet and hands. But these Northern names do not mean freedom for the speaker. The ship merely transports the speaker from one form of slavery to another. The fort might shelter the speaker from the rain, but it does not remove his shackles. It is at this point in the poem that the speaker sees the irony of life, how all the soldiers, white or black, freed or never enslaved, are all entrapped by their fate and are therefore equal.
Another ironic situation, perhaps the most ironic of all in this poem, is the fact presented in the fifth verse, where the speaker ponders the weird position in which he finds himself—that of guarding former white slave masters. Who would have imagined such a situation just a few years ago? What slave would even have dared to think of it? Added to this ironic situation is the fact that the speaker, a short time ago a slave, is now recording these white soldiers' words and thoughts because he, the former slave, is literate and the white soldiers, his people's former masters, are not. The white prisoners cannot even sign their names. These white men, who not long ago denied the possibility that black people were human, now have to trust that this black soldier will write to their loved ones the personal desires that they are expressing. The white men must learn to trust this man who was once a slave, who was beaten with a whip and treated like a mule, with their most intimate feelings. They must open their hearts before this man, whom they once thought did not even own a heart.
The poem ends on another ironic note. Although the speaker writes letters to the loved ones of the deceased, he is told not to tell them the whole truth. There is an understanding among the military leaders that the details of war should not be shared with those who have not experienced the horrors. If the full truth of war were to be revealed to all, what would happen? Would people become alarmed and upset and demand that no more wars be fought? If they were to learn of the massacres that happened while the soldiers waved the white flag of surrender, would people then declare the war unfair? If they were to know that animals ate the remains of their loved ones, would they demand that laws be made to stop all future wars? Were these the concerns of the generals of this war when they demanded that secrets be kept? Were they saying that war is so brutal that even they cannot admit to the truth? Is the most pointed irony revealed when the poet repeats the poem's final phrase? Is some truth too difficult to be swallowed? If history does not record truth, what does it record?
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on "Native Guard," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Pearl Amelia McHaney
In the following excerpt from an interview, McHaney and Trethewey discuss the poet's 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poetry, Native Guard.
… Trethewey: When I first started thinking about writing Native Guard, it was my interest in the history of the Louisiana Native Guards that got me going. I had gone out to visit my grandmother in Gulfport, right after I started my first job at Auburn University. I took her out to lunch at a restaurant on the beach and I was talking to her about a creative writing assignment that I was going to give my students in which you get them to write about a time when a relative met someone famous. I was telling her that I was going to do this assignment, too, about her story, about the time her brother, my great-uncle, met Al Capone. Uncle Hubert was a bellhop at a hotel on the beach, and he shook Al Capone's hand. Al Capone used to go down there when he was running a gambling joint out of the fort at Ship Island. As I am telling my grandmother this, there's a woman who is listening the whole time to our conversation. And I think it is particularly important to mention because of what she said that this is a white woman listening to our conversation. And as she gets up to leave the restaurant, she leans over and she says, "I think there is something else you need to know about Ship Island." It was very much like she was saying, "There's this other history about these black soldiers that you should know as part of your history as well," and so she told me about them. I went right away to the Gulfport Public library to try to look up something about them. And the first thing I found was a small mention in someone's M.A. thesis. And then later on of course I found the full length monograph by James G. Hollandsworth that I mention in the Notes in the book as well as the published diary of the colonel who was stationed there that C. P. Weaver edited. But I was interested in this because I had been going out to that island my whole life and the park rangers don't mention anything about the black presence on the island. There isn't any marker mentioning the Native Guards or their presence the way there is for the Confederate soldiers who were imprisoned there. And that suggested to me a kind of historical erasure from the manmade monumental landscape. I was interested in telling that story, telling a fuller version of our story as Americans in this pivotal moment in history.
McHaney: You said that originally you thought you were working on poems that would lead to two separate books, about the Louisiana Native Guardsand then the ones that become the elegies for your mother Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough. When did you realize the confluence of the two projects? When did you realize that these personal poems could successfully frame the public poems about the Louisiana Native Guards?
Trethewey: That took a long time for me to recognize. When I went to Radcliffe on a Bunting Fellowship in 2000, I was still thinking about the soldiers. And I was doing a lot of the research about historical memory, the Civil War, and the idea of what gets memorialized in the form of monuments. It seems to me [it] should have alerted me to something that was on my mind, but it didn't. I was writing, at the same time as these poems, about my mother. Sometimes they would be just a portion of a poem that I wouldn't finish until years later. But I started writing some of them and putting them away in a drawer because I thought, well that's for another thing, another time. I couldn't see how, at the time, they would have anything to do with this larger project that was only about something historical. And maybe because I was coming off the heels of Bellocq's Ophelia, still thinking only about a kind of public history, I didn't see the connections, even though what I do in Bellocq's Ophelia is to find a way to weave a personal history into what is my imagined history for her.
McHaney: Ophelia moves from in front of the camera, being objectified, to behind the camera, choosing what she takes a picture of, what she sees. It is a similar kind of movement.
Trethewey: Right, the same kind of journey I was taking, but I didn't know that. I did start publishing a lot of those elegies, but I was still thinking they didn't belong. I think I remember at one point feeling that I was coming close to having a new book, and there I was writing all of those things, and I started to think, well, could they go together? But I still didn't know.
McHaney: Didn't know that you would be able to have a first section that were the elegies to your mother and that at the same time they were leading to the Native Guards poems and then that they would be so interwoven by the third section?
Trethewey: Well, I started thinking that a poem like "Miscegenation" and some poems that I was writing about my own personal history as a biracial person growing up in the deep South had a connection to the history of the Native Guards because I saw that the umbrella over them was something about the South. I still hadn't connected those elegies for my mother. In the meantime, I was living here in Atlanta. Returning to the landscape that was haunted by the tragedy of my mother's death made me write these elegies. I wrote a poem for the book early on called "Graveyard Blues" after jogging through the little Decatur cemetery and being overwhelmed by all the names of the dead. I am one of those people who can't just walk through a graveyard. I feel like I have to read every single name that presents itself to me, and it seemed like a good metaphor for the insistence of history, or for the insistence of people to be heard or their stories to be told, or even their names to be registered or spoken. And so even seeing those names, I was still thinking: this is about history. But the poem I wrote was about the memory of the day we buried my mother. The final image in the poem, the final two lines, reads:
I wander now among names of the dead:
My mother's name, stone pillow for my
That's an image of hard, or cold comfort. I might want to lie my head down on my mother's stone and that would be a kind of comfort, but one that was stone and cold. A few months later, I could not, I could not simply deal with the fact that I [had] written those two lines in that poem because I felt that whatever obligation I have to truth was being sacrificed by the poem. So I started writing another poem to undo the lie that I told in "Graveyard Blues." My mother does not have a stone or any marker at all. There's no marker, no memorial at her grave, and so I started writing the poem "Monument" because I wanted to tell the reader that I had lied about this. It was stunning to me when I realized that I had, for the sake of one poem, told a lie and needed to fix it in another one. But it was the realization that I needed to fix the lie that made me realize exactly why those elegies to my mother should be in the same book with the Native Guards. Like them, she had no marker.
McHaney: You arrived at it through a kind of journeying; it evolved in a very natural way. Maybe that is one aspect of your genius, the weavings and stitchings and cross-hatchings all together. That was the work that you had to do.
Trethewey: Well, perhaps it is the genius of poetry. Robert Frost said, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." It is absolutely true that I didn't set off knowing exactly what I wanted to say, and when I figured it out, it was because the writing of the poems led me to it. It was stunning for me, too, and painfully so.
McHaney: You dedicate Native Guard to your mother, in memory, and the book is the elegies for your mother, the weaving together the personal and the public histories, the erasures and the monuments and the memorial. And then, moving backward, you dedicated your second book Bellocq's Ophelia to your husband, Brett Gadsden, historian, professor of African American Studies at Emory University. And your first book Domestic Work, going back further, you dedicated to your father, Eric Trethewey, a poet, who teaches at Hollins University. In Domestic Work, the second section of four is dedicated to your mother's mother, your grandmother: "For Leretta Dixon Turnbough, born June 22, 1916," who is still living. Yet, Rita Dove introduces Domestic Work saying, that you "resisted the lure of autobiography … weaving no less than a tapestry of ancestors." In Domestic Work, reading it now again, I see many autobiographical seeds.
Trethewey: Oh, absolutely.
McHaney: But they are masked just as you said earlier. In "Tableau," for example, the beautiful line "—sees for the first time,/the hairline crack/that has begun to split the bowl in half." And there are poems about your father, your Uncle Son and Aunt Sugar. So what changed? Even though you've explained how Native Guard came about, what changed even in those jottings and those poems that you would so explicitly write about the private anxieties and grief experienced by your family, so that you were no longer passing, in a sense, when you were addressing your bi-raciality, your grief, the tragedies?
Trethewey: Rita did a wonderful thing for me in writing what she did about the larger public history that is represented by the poems in Domestic Work, particularly the "Domestic Work" … section. When I started writing those, I really just wanted to write about my grandmother who has lived an extraordinary life. So I thought I was doing a very personal family history. But early on I started placing the events of her life within the context of a particular historical moment. Without understanding the depth of my obsessions, I was already, by using dates or other historical events within the poems, working to blend personal or family stories with collective history. Maybe her taking note of that helped me to see it as a long term obsession of mine.
McHaney: You said a little bit about how being back here in the physical landscape where the tragedies happened didn't let you escape them. Did your studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, influence your shift to the autobiographical?
Trethewey: James Tate once said to me to unburden myself of my mother's death and unburden myself of being black and just write about the situation in Northern Ireland. And I was devastated when he said that. John Edgar Wideman said to me, "You have to write about what you have to write about." But at another point some advice that Tate gave me was to just pour my heart out into the poems, and so by the time I was writing Native Guard, I was indeed pouring my heart out into the poems. But I was also not abandoning the very things "I'd been given to write," to use Phil Levine's phrase. I don't know what I would have written if I hadn't written about those things that I have been grappling with my whole adult life.
McHaney: You have also said, "We must identify with the despised parts of ourselves."
Trethewey: I think writing some of the elegies and perhaps even thinking about my place in the South had a lot to do with approaching the anniversary of my mother's death. I was approaching the twentieth anniversary, at the same time approaching my fortieth birthday which was the last age my mother ever was, and so I think those things were heavy on my mind. And perhaps returning to the South after many years in the Northeast made me rethink Southern history, American history, and my place in it, because I can get really angry about my South. Though I love it, it has given me plenty of reason to hate it. And one of the things that I hate, not just about the South but the way Americans remember things, is that so much of that memory is based upon a kind of willed forgetting and there's a lot that gets left out—of the historical record, of textbooks, of public monuments. I wanted to tell a fuller version of what stories I have to add to the historical record.
… McHaney: We've talked a little bit about how your work evolved from the third person to the autobiographical observations to reveal the erasures and to memorialize both personal and public history. Yet, the Pulitzer Prize award has shiftedattention away from those national and regional stories and toward your private stories as we've just been talking about. I'd like to return us to that public story that you started with, the Louisiana Native Guards. Can you tell us a bit about Francis E. Dumas and how you discovered and perhaps identified with him?
Trethewey: He was mentioned in James Hollandsworth's book, and the interesting story that Hollandsworth points out about Major Dumas is that as the son of a white plantation father and a mixed race mother, he inherited his father's slaves and plantation when his father died. Apparently he did not want slaves, didn't believe in slavery, but it was illegal to manumit his slaves in Louisiana at the time, so he had them. When the Union was enlisting men for the Native Guards and he joined, he freed his slaves and encouraged those men of age to join as well. And I found that that was a compelling story because it represented what was perhaps a very personal dilemma for him. He and several other free men of color had actually been part of the Native Guards first when it was a Confederate Regiment. I think Hollandsworth mentions that some of the men felt coerced to join, that they felt like they would lose their property if they did not support Louisiana as Confederate soldiers. Perhaps there were some of them that were so into protecting their own and seeing themselves as so distant from the blacks and the slaves that they didn't care, but Dumas was one who did feel differently about slavery and so became a member again when it was resurrected as a Union Regiment.
McHaney: How do you see these ambiguities of Dumas's and of the other Native Guards that had been slaves but now were not slaves and who found themselves guarding the white Confederates, dying at the guns of their fellow Union soldiers?
Trethewey: I think that what Dumas represents, being of mixed blood, is the larger metaphor of the collection that the cover suggests, and that is the intersections of white and black, north and south, slave and free. I was taken by that idea when I found that Colonel Daniels had confiscated a diary from the home of a Confederate and cross-wrote in it because there was a shortage of paper. That intersection was a gift. Native Guards is a book about intersections. Those very intersections are in me, in my very blood, they're in the country, they're in the very nature of history.
McHaney: Tell us about the metaphorical meanings of your title, Native Guard.
Trethewey: The literal is obvious: it is after the Louisiana Native Guards. But, I started thinking about what it means to be a native guardian, of not only personal memory but also of collective memory—and that is certainly what poets are often charged with doing, representing the collective memory of a people. And as a native daughter, a native guardian, that is my charge. To my mother and her memory, preservation.
McHaney: The first O.E.D. definition of "guard," that is said now to be obsolete, is …
Trethewey: … "to take care." I knew immediately that the title was going to be Native Guard, and I thought it was such a gift that these soldiers were actually named that.
McHaney: What is the relationship between a photograph and a poem? You've pointed out elsewhere that you were the first poet at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies that usually brings historians and documentary film-makers and photographers together. You said that the director, Tom Rankin, "believes that poetry can do the work of documentary and history." You studied photography and theory of photography at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. How do you see those two things coming together?
Trethewey: I think again that it is a necessary intersection. I had two quotations. Lewis Hine said, "If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn't lug a camera." But Susan Sontag reminds us that "Nevertheless, the camera's rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses." What this suggests to me is the need for both photograph and story to work together. What has always interested me about a photograph is that even though it seems to capture and elegize a particular moment, there are all the things that swirl around it, things that are cropped out of the frame, that which was just behind it that we don't see. And there is always a fuller version of the story that needs to be told. I believe the photographic image is a way to focus our attention, and it can be the starting point for a larger exploration of what else is there. As much as a photograph is about seeing what is there, it is equally about seeing what has been left out as it points in some way to what we might know if we are willing to imagine or to think about. What's been cropped out or what's not there—words are like that too.
McHaney: That reminds me how important narrative is within your lyric poems. What do you find that poetry can do when you want to tell a story? Why poetry then, and why not fiction?
Trethewey: Because of those elegant envelopes of form that poems are. Because of the music and lyricism and density and compression, poems can be memorable in a way that a long piece of fiction isn't. Not that the language of the novel or story isn't memorable, but the ease with which we might memorize a poem and carry it with us in our heads is appealing to me. The way a poem has a smaller space to fit into, and because that density and compression of a poem crystallizes and intensifies image, emotion, idea, sound.
McHaney: You have said that writing in form helps to avoid sentimentality, that refrain and repetition allow emotional restraint from excess or provide emphasis. Can you speak of your use of form, the ghazal "Miscegenation," the pantoum "Incident," the villanelle "Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi, 1. King Cotton, 1907"?
Trethewey: I had been reading the late Shahid Ali's anthology Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English. The introductory essay is so illuminating about what a ghazal is, the qualities of the ghazal. The particular one is the idea of disunity, the idea that these are closed stanzas that don't necessarily support or aim to support narrative or even linear movement, that they are separate, that in the juxtaposition of one stanza to the next is some sort of tension, and excitement can happen. And movement. And also that it is a form that is a kind of call and response—if the form is done traditionally, audiences know, based on where the rhyme appears, when the refrain comes and they say it with the poet. That is an interesting collective thing happening. Also, that the poet is supposed to invoke her own name in the final stanza is the thing that made that poem get written for me. I was thinking about all these disunified things. They were all connected but they were things that I didn't think I could write about in a straight narrative—my Jesus year or my parents breaking laws in Mississippi. These things are part of the same story, but I couldn't imagine a kind of linear narrative poem being able to put all of it together. So it was the idea of "ravishing disunity" that allowed me to do it.
McHaney: I reread the poem looking at each stanza to have it be its own separate unit as you said, and it does; it works perfectly. What about the pantoum,"Incident."
Trethewey: Oh, I loved figuring out that that poem should be a pantoum and that it was suggesting itself to me. At first, it was an extremely different poem. I showed it to my students at Chapel Hill because I was talking to them about revision. I brought in a copy of two poems. One of them was "Incident," and the other was called "Target," one of its horrible pedestrian titles. I was trying to write about the cross burning, and I was writing bad poems about it because I was focusing on the narrative of it, the story of it, trying to tell the story and then figure out what the story meant. Ultimately I knew that poem wasn't working, and I mined it for what seemed to work of the narrative. In doing so, I got the first four lines:
We tell the story every year—
how we peered from the windows, shades
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.
In those first four lines, I get the scene of us peering from the windows while this cross is being burned, but also the lasting effect that it had on us, that need to retell the story, to keep the memory of this event alive. What is exciting about the pantoum or the villanelle, some of those forms, is the kind of mathematical way that they work. They allow you to see other possibilities. That was exciting. I knew I had to pull out those two lines and place them in the next stanza and then to write around them. It freed me from what can be the trap of linear narrative and it allows the poem to circle back on itself. A lot of the poems in Native Guard circle back on themselves. My impulse is to tell a story; it was form that made me do something different with storytelling.
McHaney: What is that trap of linear narrative?
Trethewey: When it is not working well, then that story just goes to an end and that end isn't really anywhere.
McHaney: Just a teleological impulse which is to get to the end, whereas your impulse is to circle back because you get a different view from every edge of the circle?
Trethewey: Yes, and to transform the meaning by circling back.
McHaney: I also read that in a pantoum the poet tells two stories, lines two and four become lines one and three in the subsequent stanza and the first two lines of each stanza build one story or theme and lines three and four another theme. In "Incident" the first two lines are the story, the cross itself, what was seen, and the other story is light, and shedding light and looking for understanding of what that was. So the pantoum was successful in form and in meaning both. What of your villanelle, "Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi, 1. King Cotton, 1907"?
Trethewey: When I am using a photograph, I begin describing literally what I can see before I move toward any interpretation. And in that first poem in "Scenes," "1. King Cotton, 1907," I saw the flags and the archway made of bales of cotton; I saw clearly those two things in contrast to each other. And I saw how symbolic this was of that historical moment:
From every corner of the photograph, flags
the main street in Vicksburg. Stacked to
form an arch,
the great bales of cotton rise up from the
McHaney: You have been writing sonnets and blues poems since your first book; has your use of those forms changed over time?
Trethewey: I admire the sonnet form, little envelopes of small space, ten syllables in fourteen lines. You are forced to get rid of the unnecessary, the things that might try to trick you. There's no room for anything extra. You have to select, and what you select you must infuse with meaning. What is kept has energy, offers the right amount of story. Sonnets are traditionally written in iambic pentameter, the equivalent of the natural English voice, and in rhyme. Somehow, I didn't want to impose such a voice or such rhyme onto the speaker in "Native Guard." I am thinking also about the poems of Agi Mishol and Elizabeth Alexander who write about historical erasures in their cultural experiences. Mishol's poem "Woman Martyr" tells the story of the suicide bomber Andaleeb Takatka, but Mishol says it is not about Takatka, that poetry is always about language.
Rita Dove referred to a "syncopated attitude of the blues" in the poems of Domestic Work. I thought that sounded really wonderful and then I realized the real insight of Rita's comment. "Syncopate," in its simplest definition, means to shorten, usually by omitting something, like I described leaving out the unnecessary. But when you talk about syncopation in music, it is putting the stress on the typically unaccented note, putting the accent in an unexpected place, and in poetry, infusing the poems with a syncopated rhythm would be putting emphasis where one would not only not expect it, but would not want it—on the historical erasures, the bi-raciality, the circumstances of the Louisiana Native Guards who could read and write better than their white prisoners …
Source: Pearl Amelia McHaney, "An Interview with Natasha Trethewey," in Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art, Vol. 11, No. 3, September 2007, pp. 97-115.
In the following review, Mlinko discusses the three-part structure of Native Guard.
But what of elegiac works that reject the premise of art's enchantment? At barely fifty pages, Native Guard nevertheless aspires to monumentality, memorializing both Trethewey's mother, murdered at the hands of her stepfather, and the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first black Civil War regiments.
Native Guard is structured like a dialectic, in three parts: the autobiographical as thesis, the historical as antithesis, and the intertwining of the personal and the historical as synthesis. First she limns her relationship with her mother, who dies; then she imaginatively reconstructs the experience of the Native Guards in the 1860's; finally, in the strongest section, she combines the personal and the historical in recollections of her childhood in the South in the explosive sixties. The dialectic is used to allegorize her very person: Trethewey is a synthesis of a black mother and white father. Their marriage was illegal in Mississippi, and her birth thereby illegitimate. But the illegitimate daughter refuses to give up her legacy, which encompasses the land and its history, its mess and its murderousness. She comes back again and again, rooted to the source of trauma, and in an act of equal parts reconciliation and defiance, creates a tribute for the Native Guards, whom the state has neglected to memorialize whatsoever.
The story is heroic; the architecture is contained. Between the dialectical structure and the variety of carefully crafted patterns she brings to the matter—blues, ghazal, villanelle, sonnet, and even an ingenious palindrome—Trethewey brings together race and ratio, or the racial and the rational, as if to heal the old irrational wound inflicted by the state. However, the insistence on symmetry and pattern becomes too pat, such as when she sets the book up to begin and end with passages to Gulfport. "Theories of Time and Space," her opener, seems written solely to launch the plot:
You can get there from here, though
there's no going home.
Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you've never been. Try this:
head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end
Sprezzatura this is not. Like Lowell in Life Studies or For the Union Dead, Trethewey does some heavy lifting, and taking poetic flight is not an option when you are ruled so fatefully by reality, by facts. Although it is almost unacceptable to say so (say it!) monuments are by definition static and therefore risk being staid. Memorial art is of a piece with death, at least if you think, like me, that even representations should be allowed their portion of autonomy. If the poem is simply a vehicle, a means to an end, there's no need to ensure that every line conveys vitality, but only that it communicates its point.
Then again, as a first-generation American who's done my share of bouncing around, what do I know about passionate attachment to a native land? When Trethewey dreams that she is being photographed (in whiteface) with the Fugitive poets and they turn on her with the question, "You don't hate the South?" ("Pastoral"), I am moved by the drama's authentic strangeness. Elsewhere, I admire the force of a transverse association: in "Miscegenation" she tells us that her name, Natasha, means "Christmas child" in Russian. A few pages later, the cross that is burned on her lawn one night is "trussed like a Christmas tree" and the whole phantasmagoric scene has the effect of a nightmare version of The Nutcracker. There's a lot of portentous symbolism in Native Guard, but that unforeseen jeté redeems poems weighed down with message.
I blame Lowell's legacy for the traps that snare Trethewey in a sometimes suffocating elision of closed form, close relations, and closeted history. Trethewey does not match the knowing egocentrism of lines like "I myself am hell" or "I am tired. Everyone's tired of my turmoil." Implicit in her project, though, is Lowell's pinched notion that poetry begins with a psychological "I," piquing prurient curiosity, then elevates that "I" beyond memoir by placing it in a larger context of recovering cultural memory. It's a formula by now, and it wasn't a good idea even when it was new: it reinforces the prejudice against "mere" poetry (lyric, that trivial thing) by requiring that poetry keep memory alive or raise consciousness. If poetry does want to achieve those things, it also has to give us new ways of experiencing pleasure, which, after all, is what makes lyric impossible to ignore.
Source: Ange Mlinko, Review of Native Guard, in Poetry, Vol. 191, No. 1, October 2007, pp. 59-61.
In the following excerpt, Shipers discusses the power of the past in her review of Trethewey's Native Guard.
"Why the rough edge of beauty?" asks the poem "Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971," in the first section of Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey's third collection. The answer offered throughout the book is grief, an emotion explored in permutations ranging from the intensely personal to the historical. The first section of the book takes bereavement, specifically the speaker's loss of her mother, as its subject. In "What the Body Can Say," the speaker considers several familiar gestures—the posture of grief or prayer as well as "the raised thumb / that is both a symbol of agreement and the request / for a ride," the raised fingers of the peace sign—and concludes:
What matters is context—
the side of the road, or that my mother
something I still can't name: what, kneeling,
my face behind my hands, I might ask of
Intertwined with grief for the loss of the mother is grief for loss of an integral part of the self, of one's history, and of the opportunity to better understand who and what we have lost. As in "Theories of Time and Space," the poem that acts as the book's preface, the meditations on grief in the first third of Native Guard ask what home means after we have left, as well as what happens when our home leaves us or refuses to acknowledge our claim to it.
The question of home is also central to the book's second section, which takes as its epigraph a quote from Nina Simone: "Everybody knows about Mississippi." What the speaker in these poems knows, however, is necessarily partial and subjective. In the poem "Pilgrimage," the speaker spends the night in Vicksburg, a city, like many in the South, that uses Civil War history as a tourist attraction. Trethewey writes, "In my dream, / the ghost of history lies down beside me, / / rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm." The subtlety of the speaker's claims resonates throughout this collection: it is the ghost of history, not history itself, that torments her, and it does so in dreams, which speaks to the difficulty of vanquishing such ghosts in waking hours. The specificity with which Trethewey approaches the question of Mississippi history, particularly with regard to race, allows these poems to make claims that might otherwise—and that arguably have been—ignored for many years.
Also contained within this second section is a crown of free-verse sonnets from which the collection takes its title and which commemorates the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first black regiments to fight for the Union during the Civil War. Notes in the back of the book offer more specific historical information about the experiences of these soldiers, but what matters most in Trethewey's poem is the muscular eloquence of its first-person speaker, a man who records what he sees and thinks in a used journal stolen from a Confederate home, a man who relies on ink rather than "the lure / of memory—flawed, changeful—that dulls the lash / for the master, sharpens it for the slave." In another section of the poem, the speaker recounts how he uses his skill at writing to serve the Union and the other men in his regiment.
… In lesser hands, this poem might have allowed the historical information to become a burden instead of an incentive, but Trethewey's poetic restraint allows us to experience the speaker's consciousness rather than merely to imagine it. The poem's final sentence, "Truth be told" encapsulates the speaker's earnest desire to preserve his understanding of the war, but it also speaks to what Trethewey accomplishes in this poem—she tells a story that matters as only the truth can. To speak of these things—or to write of them, as do Trethewey and this speaker—does not mitigate the harm of slavery or the hardships suffered by black soldiers at the hands of their white superiors, but it does give voice to an overlooked portion of the historical record.
Many of Trethewey's poems insist that our history is inescapable, even—perhaps especially when—we most want to escape it. The third section of Native Guard examines the paradoxical complexities of Mississippi's racial history and how it intertwines with the speaker's personal experiences. In "My Mother Dreams Another Country," Trethewey writes.
… The major strength of these poems is the compelling connections Trethewey makes between personal experience and cultural memory. If these poems are confessional—and I mean that without the implied pejorative often attached to the term—their success lies not only in their specificity but in the enormous control evidenced in their lines. This control extends not only to the poet's use of language, her insistence on using the right word even when it is an ugly one, but also to the variety of forms that are used in the book. Trethewey employs, among others, the pantoum, the villanelle, the ghazal, the blues lyric, and the traditional rhyming quatrain, and she does so while maintaining a sense of precision in every line.
The book's final poem, "South," draws together the book in a poem that is both an elegy for Mississippi's troubled racial history and a personal declaration of defiance …
Source: Carrie Shipers, Review of Native Guard, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 80, No. 4, Winter 2006, pp. 199-201.
Ellis, Kelly Norman, Review of Native Guard, in Black Issues Book Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, March-April 2006, p. 19.
Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, Norton, 2000.
Mlinko, Ange, "More Than Meets the I," in Poetry, Vol. 191, No. 1, October 2007, pp. 56-72.
Seaman, Donna, Review of Native Guard, in Booklist, Vol. 102, No. 11, February 1, 2006, p. 22.
Shipers, Carrie, Review of Native Guard, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 80, No. 4, Winter 2006, pp. 199-201.
Solomon, Debra, "Native Daughter," in New York Times Magazine, May 13, 2007, p. 15.
Trethewey, Natasha, "Native Guard," in Native Guard, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 25-30.
Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo, "My Bondage, My Freedom: In Her Third Collection, a Poet Plumbs Public and Personal Histories," in Washington Post, April 16, 2006, p. T4.
Wojahn, David, "History Shaping Selves: Four Poets," in Southern Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, Winter 2007, pp. 218-32.
Andrews, William, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. Slave Narratives, Library of America, 2000.
This book includes ten classic slave narratives from such people as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Nat Turner. The material was gathered from stories told from 1772 up until the end of the Civil War.
Berlin, Ira, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., Freedom's Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
The editors of this volume researched the National Archives and found letters and eyewitness accounts of black soldiers' experiences in the war. This book invites readers to share the experiences through first-person narratives.
Hollandsworth, James G., Jr., The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience during the Civil War, Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
Hollandsworth, through careful research, put together a thorough social and political history of the Native Guard regiments of the Union army.
Rampersad, Arnold, The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, Oxford University Press, 2006.
The material in this collection covers a full range of thoughts and reflections about the African American experience. Some poets in this collection state that it is better to die than grow up black in America, whereas others celebrate their lives.
Ritterhouse, Jennifer, Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race, University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
This book covers the period from shortly after slavery ended in the 1860s to before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s began. This era in the South was dominated by Jim Crow laws that were established by whites to continue the subjugation of African Americans living in the South.