Essay Tretheway

With no opportunities in Mississippi, but a sound education, Ophelia goes to New Orleans to seek work.

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In (2012), Trethewey creates a triptych of her personal story painted onto the canvas of America’s public history.

This article presents both the visual catalysts of Trethewey’s poetry and the poetic results.

This is a kind of pattern of argument, even within her poetic forms.

She presents both sides in order to arrive, as Aristotle says, at a state of truth.

And when we look at the public history that is recovered, revealed, we glean something of Trethewey’s personal story.

By design, Trethewey presents both sides of a question: either/or, one or the other: private and personal or public and national; memory or history; literal or literary and figurative. Whether drawing with artfully chosen words arranged in “elegant envelopes” of form to present Bellocq’s photographs of the madams of New Orlean’s Storyville district, to perform a reenactment of a famous portrait of the twentieth-century southern Fugitive poets, or to dissect the taxonomies of the eighteenth century Mexican Casta paintings, Trethewey paints her own clear pictures for her readers and then transitions smoothly into the abstract conundrums of race, gender, and colonialism of the past and present.She is the daughter of a white Canadian father who is a poet and an African American mother from Mississippi who is murdered by Trethewey’s step-father.There, Ophelia’s body itself is collateral because of, not in spite of, skin color. Other “girls,” Ophelia writes, “even speak of a child / they left behind” (13).“And so, last night / I was auctioned as a newcomer / to the house,” she writes gently to her former teacher Miss Constance Wright, “—as yet untouched, though / Countess knows well the thing from which / I’ve run” (13). Or is it Mississippi in general from which she has escaped?The three poems that follow—“Providence,” “Liturgy,” and Believer”—are taken from her book-length meditation on the impact of the 2005 storm.Trethewey was educated at the University of Georgia, Hollins University, and the University of Massachusetts. In , she writes elegies to her mother who was beaten and murdered by her second husband, Trethewey’s step-father.She weaves these painful and personal poems with sonnets that tell an ignored history, sonnets about the Louisiana Native Guards, the first African American regiment to serve the Union.But it is her general concern with history and current events that is the focus of the poems here.“Native Guard” is a poem sequence constructed out of the history of an all-black Union Army regiment composed mostly of former slaves.


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