'Speaking The Unspeakable' To The New Poet Laureate

English professor Natasha Trethewey was named the 19th U.S. poet laureate last week. i i

English professor Natasha Trethewey was named the 19th U.S. poet laureate last week. Jalissa Gray/Creative Commons Image hide caption

itoggle caption Jalissa Gray/Creative Commons Image
English professor Natasha Trethewey was named the 19th U.S. poet laureate last week.

English professor Natasha Trethewey was named the 19th U.S. poet laureate last week.

Jalissa Gray/Creative Commons Image

Natasha Trethewey Reads Two Of Her Poems

Listen to a reading of 'Myth'

Listen to a reading of 'Elegy'

Natasha Trethewey is the newly announced, 19th U.S. poet laureate. The position is described by the Library of Congress as "the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans."

Trethewey tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin that it's a lot of responsibility.

"Just trying to be the biggest promoter of poetry; someone who's really got to do the work of bringing poetry to the widest audience possible," she says.

Poetry, she says, is one of those things people turn to when they need a way to "speak the unspeakable."

"That's because poetry not only can celebrate our joys with us, but it can also mourn with us our losses," she says.

A professor of English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Trethewey is the first Southerner appointed to the post since the very first poet laureate, Robert Penn Warren in 1986.

Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for her collection Native Guard, a book about the Louisiana Native Guard, a black Union regiment assigned to guard Confederate soldiers held on Ship Island off Mississippi's Gulf Coast during the Civil War.

Click on the audio links on this page to listen to Natasha Trethewey read the two poems below.

Two Poems By Natasha Trethewey

Elegy

for my father 





I think by now the river must be thick

with salmon. Late August, I imagine it

as it was that morning: drizzle needling 

the surface, mist at the banks like a net

settling around us — everything damp

and shining. That morning, awkward

and heavy in our hip waders, we stalked

into the current and found our places —

you upstream a few yards, and out
far deeper. You must remember how

the river seeped in over your boots,
and you grew heavy with that defeat.

All day I kept turning to watch you, how
first you mimed our guide's casting,

then cast your invisible line, slicing the sky
between us; and later, rod in hand, how

you tried — again and again — to find

that perfect arc, flight of an insect

skimming the river's surface. Perhaps 

you recall I cast my line and reeled in

two small trout we could not keep.

Because I had to release them, I confess,

I thought about the past — working 

the hooks loose, the fish writhing

in my hands, each one slipping away

before I could let go. I can tell you now

that I tried to take it all in, record it 

for an elegy I'd write — one day —

when the time came. Your daughter,
I was that ruthless. What does it matter

if I tell you I learned to be? You kept casting

your line, and when it did not come back

empty, it was tangled with mine. Some nights,

dreaming, I step again into the small boat

that carried us out and watch the bank receding —
my back to where I know we are headed.

Myth

I was asleep while you were dying.
It's as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,

the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You'll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking

you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.

*

Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning.

But in dreams you live. So I try taking,
not to let go. You'll be dead again tomorrow.
The Erebus I keep you in — still, trying —

I make between my slumber and my waking.
It's as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow.
I was asleep while you were dying.

"Elegy" from THRALL: Poems by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright © 2012 by Natasha Trethewey. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

"Myth" from NATIVE GUARD: Poems by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright © 2006 by Natasha Trethewey. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.