Trethewey should be celebrating; her new book,
“Monument: Poems New and Selected,” was longlisted
for a prestigious National Book Award. But during an
interview at an Evanston restaurant with sparkling
glassware and floor-to-ceiling windows, Trethewey
repeatedly wiped away tears.
book tackles many topics, but the main focus is the
murder of Trethewey’s mother when the poet was 19, a
loss that haunts Trethewey to this day.
think of myself as someone who has lived in a state of
bereavement my whole adult life,” Trethewey said.
“And that’s why the first poem (in the new book)
ends, ‘You carry her corpse on your back.’ But
it’s nothing I want to put down. You don’t want to
put down that grief. It’s part of who I am. It’s
part of what made me.”
combines new and previously published poems, some about
obscure black soldiers and domestic workers, many rooted
in Trethewey’s native Mississippi, where her father,
who was white, and her mother, who was black, lived as a
married couple before interracial marriage was legal.
There’s a poem about a cross burning outside their
home, and one about the racist language that Trethewey
encountered as a child. All of this is essential to
Trethewey’s work, as is the African-American history
she repeatedly references.
could I not write about my geography, my Mississippi, my
South? How could I not write about the history that one
inherits coming from a particular time and place?”
said Trethewey, 52, a professor of English at
being born in Mississippi on the 100th anniversary of
Confederate Memorial Day, the child of miscegenation,
when my parents’ marriage was still illegal —
that’s not a personal history, that’s a national
“Monument,” Trethewey shifts the emphasis, using new
poems to spotlight her mother’s murder by her second
ex-husband, Trethewey’s stepfather, after what
Trethewey describes as years of domestic violence.
poem in the collection, “Imperatives for Carrying On
in the Aftermath,” a showstopper in which roiling
grief is distilled into jewel-like irony, begins, “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.”
is a lens through which to view the rest of the
collection, Trethewey said. Her mother’s murder, even
more than racism, is the wound that made her a poet.
daughter of poet and professor Eric Trethewey and social
worker Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, said she wrote her
earliest poems in third grade, and even then, she said,
she was writing about African-American history: “I can
remember writing a poem about Dr. Martin Luther King
school, she was focused on fiction, and, with the
exception of a single poem written in the aftermath of
her mother’s death, she didn’t really come back to
poetry until graduate school. She had recently started a
master’s degree program in fiction at Hollins
University when she told a poet friend what a terrible
poet she would make.
don’t believe that. I think you could write a poem,”
her friend told her.
down and did, just to prove him wrong. But the poem
wasn’t that bad, she said. She put it in her fiction
professor Marianne Gingher’s mailbox, and the next
time Trethewey saw Gingher, her professor was running
down the hall in her direction, saying, “Oh Tasha!
You’re a poet!”
won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2007 book, “Native
Guard,” and served two terms as the U.S. poet
laureate. Her poems are so deeply rooted in the South
that it’s hard to imagine her comfortably ensconced in
Evanston with her husband, Brett Gadsden, an associate
professor of history at Northwestern. But Trethewey said
the Chicago area is a good fit for her.
from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, she felt landlocked
when her parents divorced, and she and her mother moved
to Atlanta. Now she lives three blocks from Lake
Michigan and walks its shores every day. Because of the
Great Migration, in which African-Americans left the
South for Northern cities, she has a family history in
Chicago as well. Her mother spent her senior year of
high school in Chicago, she said. A great aunt worked
here as a lab technician; a great uncle owned a
feels sometimes when I’m on the South Side and run
into people like ‘Up Mississippi’ — it feels like
I’m not far removed from Mississippi,” she said.
springs from a memoir Trethewey is writing about her
mother. When writing got painful, Trethewey turned to
poetry — the only thing, she said, that gives her any
kind of relief from her grief. As time went on, she had
11 poems stemming from the memoir, a set of distinct
works that didn’t fit into her ongoing poetry
manuscript. She pitched a collection of new and old
poems to her editor, and reordered the poems to create a
new narrative arc.
is framed by two poems, the haunting first piece,
“Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath,” and
“Articulation,” a lyrical kick in the teeth: “And
how/ not to recall her many wounds: ring finger/
shattered, her ex-husband’s bullet finding/ her
temple, lodging where her last thought lodged?”