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What I’m Reading: Natasha Tretheway’s Native Guard

In Native Guard (2006), a collection of poetry by former 2012-2014 United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, the poet creates a strong sense of place and loss when she takes the reader ‘down home’ in the rural South to tell her story.

By sharing personal memories of growing up in Mississippi, these poems confront a difficult childhood: being bi-racial and her mother’s tragic murder. Trethewey also includes pieces that tell the disturbing story of the mistreatment of America’s Native Guard, one of the first all-black regiments fighting in the Union Army during the Civil War.

In technical terms, I found a number of poems in Native Guard had a graceful, precise, and repetitive construction to them. That technique lent itself to their musical feel, many reading like a tight, bluesy tune. I was especially interested to see how Trethewey incorporated memory with this technique and built them into elegies — a poetic form mourning things she has lost. Works that confronted her mother’s death, while being grievous, also narrated a bigger truth about her experience of being bi-racial in the rural South.

As Trethewey’s book builds momentum in its grieving, she introduces the poem, “Native Guard,” as a timeline account of an all-black regiment’s participation in the Civil War. A poem of ultimate loss, her speaker tells the story of how slaves were moved into supply units to do ‘nigger work’ and given none of the support, rations, credit or honor for all they contributed to the war. Tretheway calls them ‘exiles in their own homeland’ and chronicles the abuses, suffering and abandonment these men endured in their station.

When combining the personal with the historical in her body of poems, Trethewey brings up an important discussion in Native Guard about the larger racial heritage of loss, aggression, and hardship in the Deep South. She finds a way to place herself and a dishonored body of soldiers in the context of American history. In addressing this loss and grief, Tretheway’s poems become the ultimate transformation and gift as they sing honor and praise for those history forgets.

Tammy Robacker| @pearlepubs