About This Book
Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
Former U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard is a deeply personal volume that brings together two legacies of the Deep South.
Through elegaic verse that honors her mother and tells of her own fraught childhood, Natasha Trethewey confronts the racial legacy of her native Deep South—--where one of the first black regiments, The Louisiana Native Guards, was called into service during the Civil War.
The title of the collection refers to the black regiment whose role in the Civil War has been largely overlooked by history. As a child in Gulfport, Mississippi, in the 1960s, Trethewey could gaze across the water to the fort on Ship Island where Confederate captives once were guarded by black soldiers serving the Union cause.
The racial legacy of the South touched Trethewey's life on a much more immediate level, too. Many of the poems in Native Guard pay loving tribute to her mother, whose marriage to a white man was illegal in her native Mississippi in the 1960s. Years after her mother's tragic death, Trethewey reclaims her memory, just as she reclaims the voices of the black soldiers whose service has been all but forgotten.
Trethewey's resonant and beguiling collection is a haunting conversation between personal experience and national history.
If this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all
things sacred what shall men remember?—FREDERICK DOUGLASS
Truth be told, I do not want to forget
anything of my former life: the landscape’s
song of bondage—dirge in the river’s throat
where it churns into the Gulf, wind in trees
choked with vines. I thought to carry with me
want of freedom though I had been freed,
remembrance not constant recollection.
Yes: I was born a slave, at harvest time,
in the Parish of Ascension; I’ve reached
thirty-three with history of one younger
inscribed upon my back. I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory—flawed, changeful—that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave.
For the slave, having a master sharpens
the bend into work, the way the sergeant
moves us now to perfect battalion drill,
dress parade. 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. Half rations make our work
familiar still. We take those things we need
from the Confederates’ abandoned homes:
salt, sugar, even this journal, near full
with someone else’s words, overlapped now,
crosshatched beneath mine. On every page,
his story intersecting with my own.
O how history intersects—my own
berth upon a ship called the Northern Star
and I’m delivered into a new life,
Fort Massachusetts: a great irony—
both path and destination of freedom
I’d not dared to travel. Here, now, I walk
ankle-deep in sand, fly-bitten, nearly
smothered by heat, and yet I can look out
upon the Gulf and see the surf breaking,
tossing the ships, the great gunboats bobbing
on the water. And are we not the same,
slaves in the hands of the master, destiny?
—night sky red with the promise of fortune,
dawn pink as new flesh: healing, unfettered.
Today, dawn red as warning. Unfettered
supplies, stacked on the beach at our landing,
washed away in the storm that rose too fast,
caught us unprepared. Later, as we worked,
I joined in the low singing someone raised
to pace us, and felt a bond in labor
I had not known. It was then a dark man
removed his shirt, revealed the scars, crosshatched
like the lines in this journal, on his back.
It was he who remarked at how the ropes
cracked like whips on the sand, made us take note
of the wild dance of a tent loosed by wind.
We watched and learned. Like any shrewd master,
we know now to tie down what we will keep.
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. They are cautious, dreading
the sight of us. Some neither read nor write,
are laid too low and have few words to send
but those I give them. Still, they are wary
of a negro writing, taking down letters.
X binds them to the page—a mute symbol
like the cross on a grave. I suspect they fear
I’ll listen, put something else down in ink.
I listen, put down in ink what I know
they labor to say between silences
too big for words: worry for beloveds—
My Dearest, how are you getting along—
what has become of their small plots of land—
did you harvest enough food to put by?
They long for the comfort of former lives—
I see you as you were, waving goodbye.
Some send photographs—a likeness in case
the body can’t return. Others dictate
harsh facts of this war: The hot air carries
the stench of limbs, rotten in the bone pit.
Flies swarm—a black cloud. We hunger, grow weak.
When men die, we eat their share of hardtack.
When men die, we eat their share of hardtack
trying not to recall their hollow sockets,
the worm-stitch of their cheeks. Today we buried
the last of our dead from Pascagoula,
and those who died retreating to our ship—
white sailors in blue firing upon us
as if we were the enemy. I’d thought
the fighting over, then watched a man fall
beside me, knees-first as in prayer, then
another, his arms outstretched as if borne
upon the cross. Smoke that rose from each gun
seemed a soul departing. The Colonel said: