She channeled the feelings that emerged from that return into 2006’s Native Guard, the Pulitzer-winning collection that explored Trethewey’s heritage, her mother’s death, and the black Mississippi regiment that fought for the Union during the Civil War. If the book’s origins were humble—Trethewey told the New York Times she received “a regular poetry kind of advance for it, around $2,000”—it became the work that established her as a major figure in the field.
In the book’s first section, Trethewey mines her sorrow following her mother’s death. She writes in “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.
Much of Native Guard was researched at the Library of Congress, where Trethewey would look through a list of holdings in the Madison Building, ask for boxes containing documents from the Civil War, then spend afternoons reading letters from soldiers.
The last part of Native Guard explores memories from Trethewey’s childhood. When she was very young, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on her parents’ lawn, an act Trethewey talks about in her poem “Incident,” describing the gathered men as “white as angels in their gowns.”
One Christmas, her parents bought her a blond ballerina doll with a matching outfit for herself. “. . . I didn’t know to ask,” she writes in “Blond,” “nor that it mattered, / if there’d been a brown version. . . .”
After her parents divorced when she was six, she divided her time between living in Atlanta with her African-American mother, a social worker, and summers with her white father, who was studying for a doctorate at Tulane in New Orleans. Trethewey began to experience how differently she was treated depending on the parent she was with. In “Blond,” she says that “. . . with my skin color, / like a good tan—an even mix of my parents’—I could have passed for white.”
But it was spending time with her father that gave her a sense of what it might be like to be a writer: “We’d spend the morning in the stacks at the library, and then in the afternoon he and his friends would go running in the park and I’d get on my bike and go with them. Then we’d go back to someone’s porch and they’d have a nightcap and talk about things that sounded so philosophical and interesting, and they’d recite poems and argue. I thought: That’s the life I want.”
Her father, now a professor of poetry at Hollins, encouraged her interests in literature at an early age, showing her Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” a poem describing a boy dancing with his tipsy father while his mother looks on disapprovingly. “I wrote one of my first poems in traditional form after reading that,” she says. “It’s still one that’s my favorite to recite.”
• • •
An equally deft writer of prose, Trethewey is working on a memoir—the subject of what the New York Times called a “heated auction.” In 2010, she published a nonfiction book called Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which deals with her complex feelings about her home state as well as the impact of her mother’s death on her half brother, Joel. After his father, who shares his name, was arrested, ten-year-old Joel went to live with his grandmother. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with work almost impossible to find, Joel—then in his thirties—agreed to transport cocaine for an acquaintance and was sent to jail, the same year Trethewey won her Pulitzer. (He was released in 2009.)
The memoir, Trethewey says, will explore her mother’s life and the side of her she never knew: “I didn’t get to know her as a human being beyond Mom. I was just a freshman in college [when she died], and the relationship we had where I was a kid and she was a parent hadn’t evolved into knowing her as a person. I’d like to know her like that.”
At the core of her research is a box of documents, including letters her mother sent to her father when they started dating in the ’60s, others they exchanged after the divorce, photographs, and the police report filed after her death, which included the contents of her briefcase. “There was a 13-page narrative she’d started writing about her life, about her difficult [second] marriage, and about her decision to try to escape it,” Trethewey says. “That decision in many ways was a dangerous one. And yet I knew she did it because of me.”
Trethewey says writing about her childhood, her mother, and the tragedy of losing her helps her process it all: “If I’m writing about my childhood, I’m writing about a moment in which I was not in control. But when I write it, because I’m shaping events and crafting the language, I do have control and it transforms it.”
• • •
Just as native guard is about her mother, Thrall, published last year, is about her father. Trethewey describes it as much harder to write because her father is still alive and the poems concern an ongoing relationship: “Because we’re poets, our conversation is both private and public. And because of what I had to say, it seemed that the poems were the best way, the most elegant way, to talk about what’s difficult between us.”
In “Enlightenment,” Trethewey writes of returning to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello with her father, years after the pair visited when she was young:
Imagine stepping back into the past,
our guide tells us then—and I can’t resist
whispering to my father: This is where
we split up. I’ll head around to the back.
When he laughs, I know he’s grateful.
I’ve made a joke of it, this history
that links us—white father, black daughter—
even as it renders us other to each other.
Asked what it means to her to be US poet laureate, Trethewey pauses, then says, “It’s a bigger honor than I can describe,” her eyes filling with tears. Sworn to secrecy until the news was made public, she persuaded her father to fly to Atlanta the day of the announcement and broke the news as she was driving him to a restaurant. “He hugged me so hard,” she says. “I know that he’s very proud. It feels like a culmination of everything he told me I could do when I was a little girl.”
• • •
Among the many firsts on Trethewey’s résumé is that she’s the first poet to serve as national and state poet laureate simultaneously. Governor Haley Barbour appointed her in her native Mississippi shortly before he left office.
It’s hard to imagine someone having a more layered relationship with her home state. “It is my homeland and my native land,” she told an audience at Emory last year. “I love the South because it is mine.”
The final lines of the last poem in Native Guard read: “. . . I return / to Mississippi, state that made a crime / of me—mulatto, half-breed—native / in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.”
And yet, looking out across the Mall at the monuments paying tribute to American heroes, Trethewey seems to feel at home in Washington as well. “Being in the presence of history and a place so rooted in the national imagination—it’s so interesting to me,” she says. “I like it very much. I think I could live here.”
This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.