The Library of Congress announced yesterday that the next Poet Laureate of the United States will be Natasha Trethewey. Chip McGrath pointed out in the New York Times that she is “the first Southerner to hold the post since Robert Penn Warren, the original laureate, and the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993.” It’s especially worth noting, because Trethewey’s work can be understood as an extension and argument with those two poets. She shares their interest in history, in the divisions of race, and the ways in which landscape can embody hidden pasts. For Trethewey, that landscape is her native Gulfport, Mississippi, a region beset by the legacy of racism and, more recently, by the catastrophes of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In August 2007, when I was the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Page-Barbour lecture committee at the University of Virginia asked me to suggest a writer who could, on short notice, compose three linked talks on a topic of current concern. It was the middle of the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and I suggested Natasha -- a friend and VQR contributing editor who had just won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poems Native Guard. I was on my way to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College the next day, where I knew I would be seeing Natasha, so I promised the lecture organizers that I would talk to her about the idea.
One night there, on the porch of Treman House, I pulled Natasha aside. She recently described the conversation to Missouri Review like this:
And so Ted said to me at Bread Loaf in August, "I need this big favor. I want you to write these three lectures and deliver them in November at UVA." And he said, "I've got it all worked out in my head for you. I know exactly what you're going to write about, and I know the structure." I said, "I'm listening." So he said, "I want you to go down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I want you to look around and write about what you see there in the wake of Katrina. And I want you to structure it like this: present, past and future, and that's the order that you'll deliver the lectures." And I said, "Okay!"
That makes it sound easy -- but the writing of those lectures, which eventually became the essay “The Gulf” (and then the outstanding book Beyond Katrina), was deeply personal and difficult and intellectually rigorous. Trethewey undertook the essay as a response to Robert Penn Warren’s essay “Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South,” which captured a glimpse of 1950s Southerners caught in what the Saturday Review described as “a storm they can neither conquer nor fully comprehend.” Natasha viewed her essay as a half-century revisiting of the metaphorical storm in the midst of the upheaval of the literal storm.
As the publication of the essay approached, Natasha suggested including a new poem, “Liturgy,” elicited by her travels back to Gulfport -- a brilliant, panoramic incantation, offered as praise-song and elegy for her lost home. How could I say no? When the poem was reprinted in Best American Poetry 2009, Natasha explained that she had been thinking of Margaret Walker’s poem “For My People,” which, itself, drew influence from Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and the oratorical style of Walt Whitman. “I was also thinking of the idea of nostos -- a journey home -- and the word ‘liturgy,’” she wrote, “which, in the original Greek, meant a public duty or one’s duty to the state.”
I know of no other poet of my generation who has done more to return the poet to the role of public servant and voice for the unheard. I can’t wait to see what exciting and innovative projects will shape her term as laureate.
Natasha Trethewey's 'Liturgy'
To the security guard staring at the gulf thinking of bodies washed away from the coast, plugging her ears against the bells and sirens—sound of alarm—the gaming floor on the coast;
To Billy Scarpetta, waiting tables on the coast, staring at the gulf thinking of water rising, thinking of New Orleans, thinking of cleansing the coast;
To the woman dreaming of returning to the coast, thinking of water rising, her daughter’s grave, my mother’s grave—underwater—on the coast;
To Miss Mary, somewhere;
To the displaced, living in trailers along the coast, beside the highway, in vacant lots and open fields; to everyone who stayed on the coast, who came back—or cannot—to the coast;
To those who died on the coast.
This is a memory of the coast: to each his own recollections, her reclamations, their restorations, the return of the coast.
This is a time capsule for the coast: words of the people —don’t forget us— the sound of wind, waves, the silence of graves, the muffled voice of history, bulldozed and buried under sand poured on the eroding coast, the concrete slabs of rebuilding the coast.
This is a love letter to the Gulf Coast, a praise song, a dirge, invocation and benediction, a requiem for the Gulf Coast.
This cannot rebuild the coast; it is an indictment, a complaint, my logos—argument and discourse—with the coast.
This is my nostos—my pilgrimage to the coast, my memory, my reckoning—
Ted Genoways is OnEarth's editor-at-large and a six-time National Magazine Award winner as former editor-in-chief of the Virginia Quarterly Review. The recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim fellowship, he has contributed to magazines ranging from Outside to Mother Jones, and his work...Ted Genoways is OnEarth's editor-at-large and a six-time National Magazine Award winner as former editor-in-chief of the Virginia Quarterly Review. The recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim fellowship, he has contributed to magazines ranging from Outside to Mother Jones, and his work has appeared in the Best American Travel Writing series.MoreClose