The Multiracial Poet?
I am not a published poet, but my husband is, which is how I came to read an article—the cover story—in Poets & Writers magazine about our new poet laureate, the very multiracial Natasha Trethewey. I was looking forward to reading the piece on many levels.
Oh my! The angst! The tragic mulatto syndrome all over again! The piece is totally focused on race. I know our previous fantastic US poet laureate, Phil Levine, and we have talked about the fact that we are both Jewish and from Detroit. We’ve traded stories and I think I’ve read just about everything he’s written. I can tell you firsthand that not all of his poems are about religion, race, or Detroit. Thank goodness. My husband is Portuguese, and of course he’s had books published that contain some poems about some of his background, but not every single one.
The writer of the Trethewey article, Kevin Nance, has framed Natasha in heartrending struggles. Yes, she did not have the greatest childhood, her parents divorced, her mother was later murdered, and she was asked the “What are you?” question a lot. This is what Nance writes about her new book, due out soon:
“Formally freer and less emotionally restrained than her previous collection, Thrall lays bare
the ambiguities and ambivalences one might expect between two people at once bound and
separated by blood, those exponentially complicated by the fact of their shared vocation as
poets, ones who’ve written about each other for years.”
Huh? He seesaws back and forth between Trethewey’s statements like, “The complexity of race in America still really does mean that for a lot of people, you can’t really be both, white and black. There are a lot of practical reasons for that…” and terminology like “mulato” and “crossbreed” and (I think) saying that Natasha Trethewey self-identifies as black. Below is one of her poems:
In the dream, I am with the Fugitive
Poets. We’re gathered for a photograph.
Behind us, the skyline of Atlanta
hidden by the photographer’s backdrop —
a lush pasture, green, full of soft-eyed cows
lowing, a chant that sounds like no, no. Yes,
I say to the glass of bourbon I’m offered.
We’re lining up now — Robert Penn Warren,
his voice just audible above the drone
of bulldozers, telling us where to stand.
Say “race,” the photographer croons. I’m in
blackface again when the flash freezes us.
My father’s white, I tell them, and rural.
You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?
I really want to give this new poet laureate the benefit of the doubt. I love reading great poetry. I’m tired of reading about poor, confused multiracial people. I’ll probably buy her new book, but then I’ll decide whether to blame the reviewer, the poet, or none of the above.
Trethewey admits in the article that she wants to “be an ‘activist,’ and not a potted plant” in her new post. Perhaps she can also find a way to embrace her entire heritage at the same time and join in our advocacy.