Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus, or The Mulata
—after the painting by Diego Velàzquez, ca. 1619She is the vessels on the table before her:the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcherclutched in her hand, the black one edged in redand upside down. Bent over, she is the mortarand the pestle at rest in the mortar—still angledin its posture of use. She is the stack of bowlsand the bulb of garlic beside it, the basket hungby a nail on the wall and the white cloth bundledin it, the rag in the foreground recalling her hand.She's the stain on the wall the size of her shadow—the color of blood, the shape of a thumb. She is echoof Jesus at table, framed in the scene behind her:his white corona, her white cap. Listening, she leansinto what she knows. Light falls on half her face.
—from Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), reprinted with the permission of the poet
I am four in this photograph, standingon a wide strip of Mississippi beach,my hands on the flowered hips
of a bright bikini. My toes dig in,curl around wet sand. The sun cutsthe rippling Gulf in flashes with each
tidal rush. Minnows dart at my feetglinting like switchblades. I am aloneexcept for my grandmother, other side
of the camera, telling me how to pose.It is 1970, two years after they openedthe rest of this beach to us,
forty years since the photographwhere she stood on a narrow plotof sand marked colored, smiling,
her hands on the flowered hipsof a cotton meal-sack dress.
—from Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000), reprinted with the permission of the poet [End Page 122]
The Southern Crescent
In 1959 my mother is boarding a train.She is barely sixteen, her one large gripbulging with homemade dresses, whisperof crinoline and lace, her name stitchedinside each one. She is leaving behindthe dirt roads of Mississippi, the filmof red dust around her ankles, the thinwhistle of wind through the floorboardsof the shotgun house, the very idea of home.
Ahead of her, days of travel, one townafter the next, and California, a wordshe can't stop repeating. Over and overshe will practice meeting her father, imaginehow he must look, how different nowfrom the one photo she has of him. She willlook at it once more, pulling into the stationat Los Angeles, and then again and againon the platform, no one like him in sight.
The year the old Crescent makes its last run,my mother insists we ride it together.We leave Gulfport late morning, heading east.Years before, we rode together to meetanother man, my father, waiting for usas our train derailed. I don't recall howshe must have held me, how her face sankas she realized, again, the uncertaintyof it all—that trip, too, gone wrong. Today,
she is sure we can leave home, bound onlyfor whatever awaits us, the sun nowsetting behind us, the rails humminglike anticipation, the train pulling ustoward the end of another day. I watcheach small town pass before my windowuntil the light goes, and the reflectionof my mother's face appears, clearer nowas evening comes on, dark and certain.
—from Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), reprinted with the permission of the poet [End Page 123]
Natasha Trethewey has published three collections of poetry, including Native Guard, which received the Pulitzer Prize. She is also the author of a book of creative non-fiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In 2012, she was named the nineteenth U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress. Her latest collection of poems, Thrall, will be released this fall.