Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
The history of the South has often been told in a bifurcated manner, through the opposing hagiographies of the gentleman plantation owner and the slave who struggles for freedom. While few still accept the ownership of another human as genteel, this bifurcation plays out in the legacy of slavery: the poverty, racial hatred and social maladjustment that span racial lines. Those who occupy a middle ground by choice or by blood are often left with intractable tension: How can all the differing histories and identities of the South, from King Cotton to lynching to Hotlanta, be true?
The title poem of Natasha Trethewey’s new book exploits the legacy of slavery to examine how we’re bound to others and to our past. "Native Guard" projects slavery into the present of a former slave fighting as part of the Native Guard, later the Corps d’Afrique -- black soldiers supporting the war against the Confederacy. But here, her narrator also understands that it’s far more complicated than chickens coming home to roost. There is a blending, a crossing of identity between the slave and slaveholder. In a journal seized from an abandoned home, the ex-slave writes “…this journal, near full/with someone else’s words, overlapped now,/crosshatched beneath mine. On every page,/his story intersecting with my own.” And later:
We know it is our duty now to keep
white men as prisoners -- rebel soldiers,
would-be masters. We’re all bondsmen here, each
to the other. Freedom has gotten them
captivity. For us a conscription
we have chosen -- jailors to those who still
would have us slaves.
The inversion of roles does not change the fact of their lives at that moment -- both are bound to external forces, to each other, and to history.
These inextricable bonds say a lot about both the contemporaneous and historical South. Southerners have a pride in their history, in their home, in their origins that strikes many Northerners as bizarre, but the central tenet of that pride is pretty simple -- because of these bonds, to hate where you’re from is to hate yourself. Note the question the biracial Trethewey is asked at the end of “Pastoral” -- “My father’s white, I tell them, and rural./You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?” The question is unanswered; because of how it’s structured, there’s no need.
Trethewey dips into many forms throughout the book. The second rhyme of a ghazal about and entitled “Miscegenation” is always “in Mississippi,” recalls the Nina Simone song “Mississippi God-damn” as well as an earlier epitaph taken from that song. A pantoum, “Incident,” exploits the haunting repetition of the form to revisit and twist the memory of Klansmen burning a cross on her lawn. The form allows Trethewey to recognize the incident for what it is but at the same time to deny its weight. “We tell the story every year” bookends the pantoum, but also appearing twice: “Nothing really happened.”
And what she does with “Incident” she does with the book as a whole. By setting the jewel of rage in a formal ring, she suffuses and subsumes it, coloring many of the poems here with pathos. The conflicting facts of the South are with her forever, and haunt her; they’re the blood of her work.
In the salutatory poem of Native Guard, “Theories of Time and Space,” she addresses the struggle with the history of the South, of “the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand/dumped on the mangrove swamp -- buried/terrain of the past.” It’s a marathon, to get through that sand, and as we know well, the legend of that first struggle and triumph ends in the death of Pheidippides. Rejoice, we conquer, but the fruits are not for the messenger. But we should know that -- all the way back to Moses, all the messenger gets is the struggle.
Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey