In high school, when my classmates were fixated on Kerouac & Co., I desperately tried to imitate the history-inspired poetry of Robert Penn Warren. Warren, who had taught English and creative writing at Yale University, published several award-winning poetry collections. Many of them reflect upon the South’s conflicted past, marred by the sins of slavery and racism. Therefore, it was no surprise as I grew older, I gravitated towards the works of Natasha Trethewey, who read on Thursday afternoon at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
“Trethewey is an outstanding poet and historian in the mold of Robert Penn Warren, [the] first poet laureate consultant in poetry,” Librarian of Congress James Billington said when he appointed Trethewey as the U.S. poet laureate in 2012.
While Trethewey carries with her the legacy of Warren, she also stakes out new territory as an African-American poet in the spirit of Gwendolyn Brooks. Born to a black mother and white Canadian father who married a year before Loving v. Virginia struck down miscegenation laws, Trethewey frequently reflects upon her biracial background. Themes of interracial marriage and relationships were central to her presentation. All of the poems came from Trethewey’s latest collection, “Thrall.”
The poems Trethewey chose for the reading blend the personal and historical. Although a current of identity politics underlies these works, the pieces also showcase her imagination and emotional depth.
Expanding beyond the vocabulary of Southern history, Trethewey explores two sets of unusual artworks in her poetry. The first focuses on pictorial depictions of St. Cosmas and St. Damian transplanting the leg of a black man upon the body of a white man. Her poem “Miracle of the Black Leg” contains shocking images of “black body hewn asunder” and “doctors harvest[ing] the leg / from a man, four days dead.” The violence committed against the seemingly anonymous black body seems an obvious metaphor for racial resentment and apathy. Yet, Trethewey manages to transform the black leg into an organism with life and potential — a “caesura in a story that’s still being written.” The African-American narrative is not merely about victimhood but the possibility to grow and flourish in a society dominated by whites.
The second set of historical artworks Trethewey draws upon is the casta paintings of Mexico. Casta paintings depict the complex race-based caste system of the Spanish colonies. In “Taxonomy,” she describes a series of such works: A white father blesses his mixed-race child while the indigenous mother watches. Trethewey lists the absurd formula for racial purity in the Spanish Mexico: “from a Spaniard and an Indian, / a mestizo; / from a mestizo and a Spaniard, a castizo; / from a castizo and a Spaniard, / a Spaniard.” Yet, having one African ancestor renders a person and his progeny black forever. We might scoff at the arbitrary delineation of races and ethnicities in that colonial age. Yet, our age is not so different. Although racial and ethnic lines have somewhat blurred, biracial children still struggle with privileges and prejudices associated with their mixed identity.
Through these Mexican artworks, Trethewey reflects upon her mixed heritage. In many ways, the looming white fathers of the casta paintings represent her own father, who is also a poet. Many of Trethewey’s poems recount childhood episodes with her father: flying-fishing, listening to the blues, walking along railroad tracks. In “Enlightenment,” she combines personal narrative and history to describe visiting Monticello with her aged father. Trethewey’s father, who once refused to believe that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with Sally Hemings, comes to accept the truth revealed through recent evidence. Old tensions between the two ease, as Trethewey reflects: “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.” Time does not heal all, but it does not sever the ties that bind kinship.
In his epic poem “Audubon,” Warren delineates the role of the poet: “Tell me a story. / In this century, and moment, of mania, Tell me a story … The name of the story will be Time.” Trethewey tells such a story through the poems she read from “Thrall.” It’s a story of the past, when racial resentment manifests itself in violence and discrimination. It’s a story of the present, as Trethewey privies readers to the complex relationship with her white father. But it is also a story of the future, as America becomes an increasingly multicultural, multiracial society.