Prize winning poet exposes history

Published 3:05 pm Thursday, March 12, 2009

A crowd gathered on the evening of March 11 — more than 100 students, faculty and guests — to hear Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey read from her “Native Guard Poems” at Jefferson State Community College.

I arrived early to meet this Emory University professor of English.

“Who inspires you,” I asked.

She flashed a broad smile, quickly replying, “My father, a professor of literature and poetry at Hollins University.”

Trethewey has honored both her parents with this collection of poetry. For the next hour she read excerpts from “Native Guard Poems,” which display intense pain and sadness from this poet’s experience and personal view of history. Some have called her work poetry journalism.

A Gulfport, Miss. native, Trethewey sprinkles many regional images in her poems. They’re mostly written as free verse, hold dark distilled prose, and hide hints of traumatic childhood with deep symbolism.

One example is this poignant line taken from her poem, “Theories of Time and Space”:

“On the dock where you board the boat for Ship Island, someone will take your picture: the photograph — who you were — will be waiting when you return.”

History tells of a Civil War prison for Confederate soldiers on Ship Island, which is located off the Mississippi coast. The Southern prisoners were guarded by black troops conscripted into Union service. These blacks were named Native Guards, thus the title of Trethewey’s poem collection. One poem by that name is based on the journal of one such guard. Read this poem and the horror of humanity’s evil nature, clearly exposed during war, bursts forth.

Trethewey has won numerous awards, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize. Her collection titled “Bellocq’s Ophelia” was named a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association. This 2008 Georgia Woman of the Year has been recipient of several fellowships, including one at Harvard, and has taught at Auburn University and the University of North Carolina.

The Trethewey reading continues the Red Mountain Reading Series at Jefferson State. It resulted from the joint efforts of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, Shelby County Arts Council and the Alabama Humanities Foundation, which is a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Other sponsors include WBHM radio and Jonathan Benton Booksellers. For information on future readings, call Sharon Lovinguth at 807–7627.