Why I Chose Natasha Trethewey’s Monument for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club

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I have admired Natasha Trethewey’s poetry since a friend in graduate school many years ago introduced me to her second book, Bellocq’s Ophelia, written in the voice of a mixed-race prostitute photographed by E. J. Bellocq in New Orleans in the early part of the last century. I was fascinated by the way she managed to create such a distinct voice while working under clear formal constraints. She wrote with enviable control and precision, and the fact that she was writing about people in New Orleans was lagniappe to me, as someone who grew up in that city’s suburbs and had only recently moved away.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Monument, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Natasha Trethewey, you’ll need to subscribe by September 20!

It was Trethewey’s third book, Native Guard, which really knocked me out. She won the Pulitzer Prize for it, so it wasn’t just me, but this was a book which really changed my notion of what it meant to be a Southerner. It aided me in my re-examination of what I’d learned about Southern culture growing up white and male in Louisiana, an hour’s drive from where Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi. (I talk more about this in a recent piece about the poem “Southern History.”)

As much as the subjects of Trethewey’s poems grabbed me, whether she was writing about Southern history and the Civil War or the violence her mother suffered at the hands of her second husband, resulting in her death, Trethewey’s skill with language and form overwhelms me. Consider this poem from Native Guard entitled “Myth”:

I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,

the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking

you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.

*

Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning.

But in dreams you live. So I try taking,
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow.
The Erebus I keep you in—still, trying—

I make between my slumber and my waking.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow.
I was asleep while you were dying.

The first time I read this poem, I was so entranced by the way Trethewey deals with loss that I didn’t realized what she pulled off formally. Then I had a wait, what? moment followed by a holy shit how did she do that? moment—I still don’t have an answer to that second question, and that’s fine. Sometimes it’s okay to just marvel at a thing.

I hope you’ll take the opportunity to marvel with me at the poems in this new and selected edition of Natasha Trethewey’s work. We generally choose single collections for the Poetry Book Club, so it’s a special treat to be able to look at the arc of a poet’s work over the course of her career to-date. Please join me in October as we read and discuss Monument, first together and then with Natasha Trethewey in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by September 20 to make sure you don’t miss out!


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →