Native Guard (review)
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Reviewed by
Natasha Trethewey. Native Guard. Houghton Mifflin.

"Why the rough edge of beauty?" asks the poem "Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971," in the first section of Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey's third collection. The answer offered throughout the book is grief, an emotion explored in permutations ranging from the intensely personal to the historical. The first section of the book takes bereavement, specifically the speaker's loss of her mother, as its subject. In "What the Body Can Say," the speaker considers several familiar gestures—the posture of grief or prayer as well as "the raised thumb / that is both a symbol of agreement and the request / for a ride," the raised fingers of the peace sign—and concludes:

                         What matters is context— the side of the road, or that my mother wanted something I still can't name: what, kneeling, my face behind my hands, I might ask of God.

Intertwined with grief for the loss of the mother is grief for loss of an integral part of the self, of one's history, and of the opportunity to better understand who and what we have lost. As in "Theories of Time and Space," the poem that acts as the book's preface, the meditations on grief in the first third of Native Guard ask what home means after we have left, as well as what happens when our home leaves us or refuses to acknowledge our claim to it.

The question of home is also central to the book's second section, which takes as its epigraph a quote from Nina Simone: "Everybody knows about Mississippi." What the speaker in these poems knows, however, is necessarily partial and subjective. In the poem "Pilgrimage," the speaker spends the night in Vicksburg, a city, like many in the South, that uses Civil War history as a tourist attraction. Trethewey writes, "In my dream, / the ghost of history lies down beside me, // rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm." The subtlety of the speaker's claims resonates throughout this collection: it is the ghost of history, not history itself, that torments her, and it does so in dreams, which speaks to the difficulty of vanquishing such ghosts in waking hours. The specificity with which Trethewey approaches the question of Mississippi history, particularly with regard to race, allows these poems to make claims that might otherwise—and that arguably have been—ignored for many years. [End Page 199]

Also contained within this second section is a crown of free-verse sonnets from which the collection takes its title and which commemorates the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first black regiments to fight for the Union during the Civil War. Notes in the back of the book offer more specific historical information about the experiences of these soldiers, but what matters most in Trethewey's poem is the muscular eloquence of its first-person speaker, a man who records what he sees and thinks in a used journal stolen from a Confederate home, a man who relies on ink rather than "the lure / of memory—flawed, changeful—that dulls the lash / for the master, sharpens it for the slave." In another section of the poem, the speaker recounts how he uses his skill at writing to serve the Union and the other men in his regiment:

                                   I record names, send home simple notes, not much more than how and when—an official duty. I'm told it's best to spare most detail, but I know there are things which must be accounted for.

In lesser hands, this poem might have allowed the historical information to become a burden instead of an incentive, but Trethewey's poetic restraint allows us to experience the speaker's consciousness rather than merely to imagine it. The poem's final sentence, "Truth be told" encapsulates the speaker's earnest desire to preserve his understanding of the war, but it also speaks to what Trethewey accomplishes in this poem—she tells a story that matters as only the truth can. To speak of these things—or to write of them, as do Trethewey and this speaker—does not...