We Tell The StoryA young poet gives thanks to Natasha Trethewey
Natasha Trethewey published her third collection of poetry, Native Guard, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, with Mariner in 2006. At 51 pages, the book enlists elegiac verse soaring with pictorial verve to explore the racial violence, grief, and mythologies that shaped her childhood in the Deep South. Its emotional restraint and formalism, such as a crown of sonnets about the Louisiana Native Guards, the first black regiments called to service during the Civil War, eschews borders separating public and personal history, national imagination and the self. Trethewey refuses what trauma scholars call “a progressive narrative.” She instead offers a complex view of events, plumbing historical and emotional truths to better understand the notion of home: how does it make and unmake us? How do we return—if ever, if possible—after exile?
A child of refugees who escaped Vietnam for the United States, I came to Native Guard in a bookstore on 14 and V Street after visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. in 2014. The poems leashed me like the whale carrying Noah in its mouth. I did not know I had been lost at sea until, for countless days and night, I slept in the belly of its investigation and arrived as my family once did on foreign shores. In poems about her mother’s homicide and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi I recognized my father’s abrupt disappearance and the formation of a new world order after 1975 that dictated every aspect of my life. I saw in the Native Guards the futile valiance expressed by South Vietnamese soldiers drafted into a war orchestrated to fulfill the imperative of U.S. global ascendancy. Though they are not and can never be the same, the absence of literature and scholarship by Vietnamese people about our existence and history made Native Guard an essential text in my development as a writer and thinker.
Of particular interest to me is Trethewey’s poem, “Incident.” It appears on page 41 in the third section between “Southern Gothic” and “Providence.” Its five stanzas, each with four typically end-stopped lines, construct an assertive pantoum demonstrating the volatility of memory, especially in which men, “white as angels in their gowns,” burn a “cross trussed like a Christmas tree” on her family’s front yard. It approaches but never yields to objectivity at the syntactical level, beginning with the first line, “We tell the story every year.” Here, “we” indicates the “story” is communal, verified by the people who tell it “every year” and concretize it through repetition. “We” also implicates the reader in the story, actively engaging in or eavesdropping on its telling. Though occluded, Trethewey reinforces collective trauma theory by suggesting that something triggers her family to “tell the story every year,” that they recover or reify something about themselves in its performance.
Using a Malay form appropriated by French settlers, the poem itself recovers knowledge about memory in performing the story. Its repeated lines, slightly altered, reinscribe omissions and embellishments that occur each time Trethewey and her family tells it. Even the poem, when read again, conceals and reveals details whose truth is irrelevant. Rather, the implicated reader must interrogate what they see and what it means in terms of their relation to the memory. This task is specifically important to me as a twentieth century U.S. historian whose obligation is to analyze the various versions of a story like “Incident,” discerning who and for what purpose it serves. Perhaps Trethewey intended to downplay the aggression against her mixed-race family by saying, “Nothing really happened. By morning all the flames had dimmed.” Perhaps this was “nothing” in light of ongoing white supremacist activities in Mississippi—the segregation of Ole Miss, the lynching of Medgar Evers—and escalating Cold War between the United States and its communist enemies. The reader only knows what Trethewey chooses to tell. But there is always a story inside a story deliberately located in between poems wherein Trethewey lies down on a bed “[her] parents will share for only a few more years…quiet in the language of blood” (“Southern Gothic,” 40) and admitting “nothing [she] could see [tied her family] to the land” (“Providence,” 42).
Growing up, I at once frequently and seldom heard my mother speak about the Vietnam War. I heard her stories about being born in a bombed gully while her twin, a ghost she calls my “second mother,” her sort of sister wife, died in my grandmother’s womb. I remember the wall she hid in during air raids, the beach where pirates stripped her down with a gun against her skull, the amulet and incantations she whispered into what must have felt like the coldest wind as children leapt from her boat into the endless sea. I also recall the stories changing each time she told them. The gully became a killing field cleared by flames. Then it was a hospital operating on electricity most likely reinstalled by American corporations sent under President Lyndon B. Johnson to strike, as he said in a 1965 speech, “a very important blow for the cause of freedom throughout the world.” The air raid occurred on Tết Mậu Thân. Then it never occurred at all. What about the beach? The children closing their eyes in an attempt to fly, misled by desperation in thinking heaven was that close to earth?
Facts are not my pursuit. I am more concerned about how and why than what stories are told. It is more substantive, I think, to accurately interpret complex and contradicting accounts because there is no truth. There are only mythologies that prevail because somebody lived to tell them, because somebody successfully persuaded others to retell them, and out of ignorance, others enjoyed the mythologies they retold. Therefore, I am fascinated more with form than fact. Form, to me, is the effective representation of such telling in poetry, and as Trethewey’s pantoum proves, inextricable is form and content. It asks us to consider the “incident” not merely as transcription of autobiographical experience. It transforms autobiography by casting and recasting information to both guarantee comprehension and dispel skeptics hostile to the realities of U.S. race relations from contact to present—skeptics who fight complicity in her “we.” Trethewey has, in fact, on many occasions underscored her reliance on form when a story is too difficult to bear witness in free verse. Form, she asserts, provides scaffolding, rules governing the release of detail and feeling, and the control she needs to hew illumination from her elusive subjects. When such illumination might be too much, as is understandable in a story about a terrorist act conducted by what might have been the Mississippi Citizen’s Council, Trethewey turns to form to “darken [her] rooms” with “hurricane lamps, the wicks trembling in the fonts of oil.”
“Incident,” as with every poem in Native Guard, is concerned not simply with story. It instead exacts the epistemological mission Natasha Trethewey has pursued her entire career: what do we know and how do we know it? What mythologies do we forge and how do we negotiate the mythologies that forge us? As an emerging poet, I proudly sojourn with Trethewey in this enterprise. I believe history and poetry has much to teach each other, to expand our imagination. I am often told what my family and I endure is “unbelievable.” Yet it is because of the public imagination’s failure to believe that the violence committed against me and people I love happen and persist. Like Trethewey, I come to poetry to set the record straight, to settle the score and tame silence into speech. I come to guarantee history—as much as I love it, as much as it has given myself back to me—never repeats. This impossible task inspires every line I write, every image I call back from the void to testify and defend my version of events. It is the whale holding me in its maw, charging through corpse-cold water towards land.
Trethewey teaches me that “we,” indeed, must “tell the story.” Writers from communities absent from or struck out of historical records must tell the story on our terms and in our words, even if we convince ourselves that “nothing really happened.” This means we reject censorship and surveillance. We reject whatever fleeting fads and tyrannical kingmakers demands from us. We reject all that raises a finger to their lips to hush us into obedience, embarrassed to articulate our thoughts. I am immeasurably grateful to Trethewey and her diligence despite critics who admonish her poems for being “peppered with what passes for literary phrasing” and “dubious conclusions.” She blazes a path for poets like me. Though we have yet to meet, I turn to her time and time again as my literary elder. I exist because she does. She summoned me here with you.