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Poems New and Selected

by Natasha Trethewey

Hardcover, 224 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $26 |


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Poems New and Selected
Natasha Trethewey

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NPR Summary

The two-term U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Native Guard poetically links the human struggles and resilience of African-American women throughout history to the collective trauma of national wounds.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Monument

Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath

Do not hang your head or clench your fists
when even your friend, after hearing the story,
says, My mother would never put up with that.

Fight the urge to rattle off statistics: that,
more often, a woman who chooses to leave
is then murdered. The hundredth time

your father says, But she hated violence,
why would she marry a guy like that? ?— ?
don’t waste your breath explaining, again,

how abusers wait, are patient, that they
don’t beat you on the first date, sometimes
not even the first few years of a marriage.

Keep an impassive face whenever you hear
Stand by Your Man, and let go your rage
when you recall those words were advice

given your mother. Try to forget the first
trial, before she was dead, when the charge
was only attempted murder; don’t belabor

the thinking or the sentence that allowed
her ex-husband’s release a year later, or
the juror who said, It’s a domestic issue ?— ?

they should work it out themselves. Just
breathe when, after you read your poems
about grief, a woman asks, Do you think

your mother was weak for men? Learn
to ignore subtext. Imagine a thought-
cloud above your head, dark and heavy

with the words you cannot say; let silence
rain down. Remember you were told,
by your famous professor, that you should

write about something else, unburden
yourself of the death of your mother and
just pour your heart out in the poems.

Ask yourself what’s in your heart, that
reliquary ?— ?blood locket and seedbed ?— ?and
contend with what it means, the folk saying

you learned from a Korean poet in Seoul:
that one does not bury the mother’s body
in the ground but in the chest, or ?— ?like you ?— ?

you carry her corpse on your back.




All day I’ve listened to the industry
of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree
just outside my window. Hard at his task,

his body is a hinge, a door knocker
to the cluttered house of memory in which
I can almost see my mother’s face.

She is there, again, beyond the tree,
its slender pods and heart-shaped leaves,
hanging wet sheets on the line ?— ?each one

a thin white screen between us. So insistent
is this woodpecker, I’m sure he must be
looking for something else ?— ?not simply

the beetles and grubs inside, but some other gift
the tree might hold. All day he’s been at work,
tireless, making the green hearts flutter.

Early Evening, Frankfort, Kentucky

It is 1965. I am not yet born, only
a fullness beneath the Empire waist
of my mother’s blue dress.

The ruffles at her neck are waves
of light in my father’s eyes. He carries
a slim volume, leather-bound, poems

to read as they walk. The long road
past the college, through town,
rises and falls before them,

the blue hills shimmering at twilight.
The stacks at the distillery exhale,
and my parents breathe evening air

heady and sweet as Kentucky bourbon.
They are young and full of laughter,
the sounds in my mother’s throat

rippling down into my blood.
My mother, who will not reach
forty-one, steps into the middle

of a field, lies down among clover
and sweet grass, right here, right now ?— ?
dead center of her life.

Family Portrait

Before the picture man comes
Mama and I spend the morning
cleaning the family room. She hums
Motown, doles out chores, a warning ?— ?

He has no legs, she says. Don’t stare.
I’m first to the door when he rings.
My father and uncle lift his chair
onto the porch, arrange his things

near the place his feet would be.
He poses our only portrait ?— ?my father
sitting, Mama beside him, and me
in between. I watch him bother

the space for knees, shins, scratching air
as ?— ?years later ?— ?I’d itch for what’s not there.