Congratulations to Natasha Trethewey, who has been named the new poet laureate of the United States, the Library of Congress announced yesterday. Here are some excerpts from the New York Times story, New Laureate Looks Deep Into Memory, followed by two of Ms. Trethewey’s poems, Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus, or The Mulata, and Monument:
…the next poet laureate is Natasha Trethewey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of three collections and a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. Ms. Trethewey, 46, was born in Gulfport, Miss., and is the first Southerner to hold the post since Robert Penn Warren, the original laureate, and the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993.
…Unlike the recent laureates W. S. Merwin and her immediate predecessor, Philip Levine, both in their 80s when appointed, Ms. Trethewey, who will officially take up her duties in September, is still in midcareer and not well-known outside poetry circles. Her work combines free verse with more traditional forms like the sonnet and the villanelle to explore memory and the racial legacy of America. Her fourth collection, “Thrall,” is scheduled to appear in the fall. She is also the author of a 2010 nonfiction book, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
…Ms. Trethewey’s great theme is memory, and in particular the way private recollection and public history sometimes intersect but more often diverge. “The ghost of history lies down beside me,” she writes in one of her poems, “rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.”
Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus, or The Mulata
by Natasha Trethewey
—after the painting by Diego Velàzquez, ca. 1619
She is the vessels on the table before her:
the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher
clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red
and upside down. Bent over, she is the mortar
and the pestle at rest in the mortar—still angled
in its posture of use. She is the stack of bowls
and the bulb of garlic beside it, the basket hung
by a nail on the wall and the white cloth bundled
in it, the rag in the foreground recalling her hand.
She’s the stain on the wall the size of her shadow—
the color of blood, the shape of a thumb. She is echo
of Jesus at table, framed in the scene behind her:
his white corona, her white cap. Listening, she leans
into what she knows. Light falls on half her face.
by Natasha Trethewey
Today the ants are busy
beside my front steps, weaving
in and out of the hill they’re building.
I watch them emerge and—
like everything I’ve forgotten—disappear
into the subterranean, a world
made by displacement. In the cemetery
last June, I circled, lost—
weeds and grass grown up all around—
the landscape blurred and waving.
At my mother’s grave, ants streamed in
and out like arteries, a tiny hill rising
above her untended plot. Bit by bit,
red dirt piled up, spread
like a rash on the grass; I watched a long time
the ants’ determined work,
how they brought up soil
of which she will be part,
and piled it before me. Believe me when I say
I’ve tried not to begrudge them
their industry, this reminder of what
I haven’t done. Even now,
the mound is a blister on my heart,
a red and humming swarm.