This past Friday, I was fortunate enough to attend a special lecture by the visiting poet Natasha Trethewey, entitled “You Are Not Safe in Science; You Are Not Safe in History: On Abiding Metaphors and Finding a Calling.” I knew next to nothing about Natasha before I entered the room, besides that she was the US Poet Laureate in 2012 and 2014, and had won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007. A quick Google search will tell you that much.
Being unacquainted with her verse, I was little prepared for her powerful, commanding hold of an entire room of people. Her opening statements summarised her parentage: born to a black mother and white father, she was raised in the ‘Deep South’ of America, traumatised early on by nearly drowning aged 3, and again through the murder of her mother aged 19. In speaking of her upbringing, one characterised by racial boundaries and conflicts, she referred to the lived experience of the metaphors she would come to write. “Metaphor shapes how we perceive reality”, she said, her own personal experiences providing a fitting “poetic education” to meditate on later in life.
The topic of which she spoke most at length about is the manipulation of history. She termed the neglect of minority representation over the centuries as a form of “historical amnesia”, the “public memory” as preserved on the records and in the books being more concerned with a larger historical narrative – a narrative governed by “racial determinism”. Her 2006 poetry collection Native Guard saught to reclaim forgotten histories, detailing the stories of black soldiers of the Union Army during the American Civil War. She sees it as her duty to reverse the selective memory of white supremacy, a process of “synthesis” through which representation and celebration can be achieved.
In speaking of the style of her verse, she fluctuates between “free and fixed forms”, with Native Guard standing as her most formal and technical work to date. This was a deliberate decision, the use of devices such as repetition and refrain standing as “containers for grief”, whilst the use of traditional forms such as sonnets work to achieve subversion from the inside. She conducts large amounts of research for her writing, attempting to dismantle the vast “lexicon of racial difference”. Her 2012 publication, Thrall, dilates between past and present in its treatment of mixed race identities, and how moments of history (both personal, racial and national) can be captured through paintings and photographs – as shown by the collection’s front cover.
One statement stuck out the most for me out of the entire lecture: “received knowledge becomes synonymous with truth.” It becomes easy to forget that history is relayed to us through a filtered lense, and that even public platforms such as the news and the media bias everything we come to know. From my own personal experience, with the exception of some teaching on the Vietnam war, all of the history lessons I ever attended at school were distinctly focused on the British – even when learning about war, conflicts and conquests, it was always about “our” side, and “our” past. What Natasha’s poetry does is reveal the inherent subjectivity of history despite claims to factuality, shedding light on the complexities masked by the “monumental narrative” that is the past.
Speaking of the discrimation experienced and witnessed throughout her life, she admitted to feeling at times like an “outsider in my own homeland. My Mississippi.” It is the same feeling that still pervades our contemporary culture, as minority identities are made to feel like outsiders in their own homes. In a time when it feels like we are taking a giant step backward, Natasha’s poetry of empowerment is a much needed reminder that there are still those of us willing to enact positive change, and strive for equal representation across all walks of life.