As a child growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi, Natasha Trethewey had never heard about the Louisiana Native Guards, the first officially sanctioned Union regiment of African American soldiers in the Civil War. They were stationed on Ship Island, just outside of Gulfport. To this day, there’s no marker on the island acknowledging the presence of these soldiers.
When Trethewey came to the Radcliffe Institute as a fellow, five years ago, she began research for what was to become her third collection of poems, Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Her fellowship was an opportunity, she says, to begin “to uncover and create a lyrical monument and to inscribe into our cultural heritage something about these Native Guards.”
An associate professor of creative writing at Emory University, Trethewey is currently on sabbatical as the Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and American Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to Native Guard, she published Domestic Work (Graywolf, 2000), which was selected by Rita Dove as the inaugural winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and Bellocq’s Ophelia (Graywolf, 2002), which she completed during her year at Radcliffe.
Researching the Native Guards, Trethewey traveled between Cambridge and the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC, searching through materials that mention Ship Island—scanning letters, diaries, and photographs for whatever information she could find. The characters she has created are those of the previously unheard. In the title poem, a former slave speaks through a series of diary entries: “Still, we’re called supply units—not infantry—and so we dig trenches, haul burdens for the army no less heavy than before. I heard the colonel call it nigger work.”
As Trethewey worked, she found herself writing elegies for her mother, who had died sixteen years earlier. In 1966 Mississippi, her parents’ interracial marriage was illegal, and some of the poet’s earliest memories, she says, are of “being stared at and being glared at.” At first, she put these poems away in a drawer, never thinking they would find a place in her book. However, as time went on, she began to see that her desire to memorialize “what had been lost or buried or forgotten” applied not only to the soldiers, but to the story of her own mother.
The poems that result pay elegant tribute to the love of a daughter for her mother, and they also continue the story of what Trethewey refers to as “my troubled South.” In “My Mother Dreams Another Country,” her mother is pregnant: “It is enough to worry about words like mongrel and the infertility of mules and mulattoes while flipping through a book of baby names.”
In Native Guard, Trethewey refers to Hurricane Camille, the 1969 hurricane that washed away the center of Ship Island. Last year’s Hurricane Katrina devastated the town of Gulfport. “It’s all gone,” says Trethewey, who has yet to visit. “In my mind’s eye, of course, it’s all still intact. Not until I actually see it will I make a new image of the place.” In the first poem in the book, “Theories of Time and Space,” she talks about how you can never truly return to places, because you change. “Now it takes on a whole new literal meaning,” she says, “because those places aren’t here anymore. I wrote this as an elegy to my home before it was gone, but now it’s really gone.”