Posted by: beansai | January 11, 2009

Natasha Trethewey – “Native Guard”

Let’s break it down like this:

Section 1:

     The first time I read through this book, I found this section very moving in it’s portrait of loss and grief. In fact I set the book down and then finished the rest of it later. Though I realized then that there wasn’t anything surprising in the language, nothing to really keep me on tenterhooks, waiting for more, I certainly appreciated the sentiment. On my second reading of this section, the lack of interest in the language became more pronounced. I think it is completely possible to use simple language, but still keep it interesting; I’ve read poems where authors have achieved this. Unfortunately though, Trethewey does not manage this. After a first reading, after the initial emotional impact, the poems lose their life force, become dull and predictable. The moments that Trethewey borders on revealing something unexpected, borders language in a new way, she either pulls back or ends the poem.This is frustrating. I wish she would just go a little further. There are moments though where Trethewey catches you off guard in her use of language. One of these moments is the poem “Myth” which is essentially a large palindrome. The first half of the poem runs seamlessly into its mirror image, and if you are not paying attention, it can easily get by you until the last line where you realize that you ended where you started. This is one example of an interesting way that language can be used as well as a great display of Trethewey’s mastery of poetic forms. Throughout the entire collection you are surprised by different forms, which she is able to slide in and out of easily: you are not bogged down by the obviousness of meter or rhyme. This is hard to do and is certainly to be appreciated in this collection of poems.

Section 2:

     The quick shift from the first section into the second was jarring from the very first time I read this book. There is such a disconnect between this section and the first that the reader is thrown out of the momentum of the book. While Trethewey displays an adept ability in use of poetic forms throughout the book, there is something lacking behind the voices of the poems. Particularly in this second section of the book where Trethewey attempts to bring history to life through the voices of African-American Civil War soldiers and portraits of slaves. This is what it is like: photographic moments that tend to become stagnant and faded. Though Trethewey’s attempt is valiant, and the idea of this section interesting, she fails to make the connection between the voices of the poems and the circumstances they portray; rather it feels as though the reader is being denied access to this place of suffering, of hardship and eventual progress. It is as though the gates are closed before us, locking us out, and the poems are on the other side chastising us through the bars. These portraits are distant and disconnected, and generally this section feels particularly forced and bordering on didactic. Again here the language is generally predictable and more often than not too redundant. Trethewey often leads one poem into another by repeating phrases or words. I wouldn’t mind this if Trethewey had bothered to enforce a bit more restraint in her use of this tactic, but instead it is fairly prominent throughout the entire work, which quickly becomes tiresome. It’s like a repeating pattern in a wallpaper or fabric…once you notice it, you can’t take your eyes off of it, and not in a good way. There are moments though when this leading into another poem is more subtle and it works wonders. And while I think this is an interesting approach – this trip into history, this channeling of voices – it, frankly, gets old quickly. It isn’t the subject matter that’s the problem, rather the way Trethewey chooses to present it – all in the same strain. It’s too forced. She tries too hard to make a point about this history, about such injustices.

Section 3:

     This is the section that works to tie the other two together and I have to wonder if the sections were re-ordered, would they have more impact? The way the book is currently arranged the second section mostly feels out of place and yet it is the section with the poem that the entire work is named after. I wish that Trethewey had worked in the idea of native guard into the other two sections. Maybe some would argue that she has. And perhaps she touches on it a bit more in this final section, where she tackles issues of race identity, especially for a bi-racial person. I think if Trethewey had presented this section before the second section or the first section after the third, the section of history would feel more justified. As it stands, the presence of the second section feels out of place and this isn’t remedied until the third, but by that point, there isn’t much opportunity to take it all in and switch the directions of one’s thoughts. There is no doubt that Trethewey is taking on huge social issues that even modern society is still sludging through, and her efforts are certainly gallant, but ultimately it feels as though she is just scratching the surface, holding back the juicy details that readers love.

Some of my favorite poems in this collection:
     “Theories of Time and Space”
     “After Your Death”
     “My Mother Dreams Another Country”

“Native Guard” by Natasha Trethewey – ★★☆☆☆
Worth reading, but re-read value is minimal.



  1. I found “Myth” published in Newsweek here: Also “Theories of Time and Space” is published here: I think the Lit-Bit review is perceptive and balanced in presenting both strengths and weaknesses of the poetry.

  2. Oooo thanks for the links Eggplanteer! And thank you. I’m glad my review did not disappoint. 😀

  3. […] there are plenty of other poets that would have fulfilled this inaugural post much better; even Natasha Trethewey would have been a better choice. […]

  4. This is a great review. And by great, I mean elementary and insightless.

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