The poetry industry claims to put a premium on ambiguity, but with most poems (not to speak of poets!) lines are drawn, feelings are colored in, meaning is either nailed down or allowed to slip away. It takes poise to leave a metaphor unforced, balanced between possible readings; it takes brilliance to make the reader pursue what’s actually happening out of need, as opposed to duty. You could call that combination of poise and brilliance beauty. The first thing to notice about the poems in Native Guard, Natasha Tretheway’s new collection, is the controlled diction hewing close to ordinary speech the better to make the fleeting images pop:
head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion — dead end
at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches
in a sky threatening rain.
(“Theories of Time and Space”)
You may never have seen a shrimp boat, but you’ve probably counted off mile markers and you almost certainly know what loose stitches look like on gray fabric. It’s possible to pile up images like this stitch of rigging until they make a poem, and it’s just as possible to write a poem without any visual metaphors. In a poem such as this one, a poem with a poetics for a title, no less, the glancing feeling can catch the reader. It’s a small feeling of pleasure, but a sturdy one. And in this poem, the first in the book, it helps give new emotional life to a Heraclitean truism about change so offhandedly it’s not until halfway through the book that the impact can be understood:
On the dock
where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:
the photograph — who you were —
will be waiting when you return.
That’s the second thing to notice: The unflappable surface Tretheway presents, both ambivalence and camouflage. Not to say that the emotional range is muted — cool maybe. Given the hot-button topics, from her mother’s abuse at the hands of her stepfather, to cross burnings, to hurricanes, a little sangfroid is a pretty good idea. In the one explicitly literary piece in the book, a fable called “Pastoral,” she self-medicates with a bourbon to endure a group photograph, herself and the Fugitive poets: “My father’s white, I tell them, and rural. / You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?”
The title piece, ten linked sonnets at the center of the book, is in the voice of a black Union soldier stationed at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island off the coast of Gulfport in 1862-3. Not to get all strong precursor about it, but some readers will think instantly of Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead,” which also takes up black soldiers fighting for the North in the Civil War. It’s not a bad sequence, or sequel, at all — the reticent, exhausted prison guard (another hot-button topic) plays as straight as possible all the ironies of his literacy and other forms of power. By comparison with the rest of the book, though, it feels a little like an echo or aftershock of Tretheway’s previous collection, the excellent Bellocq’s Ophelia, a historical piece set in New Orleans’ Storyville giving voices to the prostitute subjects of a Latrec-like figure who photographed the neighborhood’s brothels at the turn of the century. The central image of “Native Guard,” and there has to be a central image, is “scars, crosshatched / like the lines in this journal,” the conceit being that the guard is writing sideways in an already-full journal confiscated from an abandoned Confederate home. Well, conceits we always have with us. They’re a kind of duty.
In the truly staggering pieces in the book — and there are a few, such as “Miscegenation,” “Pilgrimage,” and “Pastoral” —- there’s no willfulness, only a feeling of inevitability. It’s one she makes explicit, gives physical mass to, in “Pilgrimage”: “In my dream, / the ghost of history lies down beside me, // rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.” In “Miscegenation,” she conveys the sense a storyteller gives, that this is how it was and the only way it could have been, by means of declarative statements and a slight but effective formal choice — the second line of each couplet ends in Mississippi. “In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi; / they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.”
There’s more to say, that is, to notice: What to make of the rebus Tretheway seems to construct within each poem, and then from poem to poem and section to section, to make good on all the narrative implications and shadow-feelings that arise in the course of the book, as in a life. How Tretheway bemuses the subjects of race class gender. The complexity of her poems about childhood, and her energized reticence toward bringing what could be called her adult life into the work. This fine writing ought to encourage serious academic attention. With any luck, though, the greater interest will come from readers in the poetry business community, a group that may yet learn not to make invisible what it can’t categorize in an instant. It will take a strong work to teach that lesson. This is strong work.