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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 695-697
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Trethewey, Natasha. Domestic Work. Graywolf Press, 2000.
Natasha Trethewey's Domestic Work, selected by Rita Dove for the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize, is a skillful evocation of the rhythms and patterns of work and a tender exploration of the bonds of family. Trethewey uses plain speech and a light tone throughout, but her poems have a sharpness, an acuity of observation that prevents them from sagging into the realm of sentimentality and sepia-toned lost time. She invokes photographs so often that the reader sometimes has the sensation of paging through an album, though they aren't used as a gimmick: each image has its own strength, its own story, and taken as a whole they make a kind of hybrid documentary-and-family photo album.
Throughout the book Trethewey plays with a contrast between stillness and motion, being and becoming, with the positions of observer and observed. In the book's opening poem, "Gesture of a Woman-in-Process," Trethewey describes two women from a 1902 photograph, one of them caught in the act of becoming, a woman who won't stand still for the camera: "Even now, her hands circling, / the white blur of her apron / still in motion." And in "Cabbage Vendor," the observed subject turns tables on a photographer:
I could work a root of my own,
turn that thing around
and make him see himself
like he be seeing me—
distant and small—forever.
Later, in "Wash Women":
They walk the road toward home,
a week's worth of take-in laundry
balanced on their heads
lightly as church hats. Shaded
by their loads, they do not squint,
their ready gaze through him,
to me, straight ahead.
The book's second section is devoted to the poet's grandmother. From "Domestic Work, 1937" to "Speculation, 1939" (where a job operating an elevator leaves "nothing but / time to think, make plans / each time the doors slide shut") to "Self-Employment, 1970," ("her head / sweating, hot as an idea") the section moves from free verse to sonnets to quatrains, and includes a clipped invocation of the blues of Robert Johnson, one that speaks volumes about longing and striving, in "At the Station." While some poems in the book are given particular dates, there is an essential continuity about them that speaks to the constancy of work and love and the constant struggles against the diminishments of racism. Trethewey's understated, formal approach provides just enough distance and transparency to keep the emotional tone of the poems on an even keel. [End Page 695]
Work, especially women's work, is inseparable from life in general, or from the will to survive, even to retaliate against life's conditions. This is illustrated especially effectively in "Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956":
the colored women filed out slowly
to have their purses checked,
the insides laid open and exposed
by the boss's hand.
Trethewey relates the tale of her grandmother's revenge against this indignity with perfect pitch:
But then she laughs
when she recalls the soiled Kotex
she saved, stuffed into a bag
in her purse, and Adam's look
on one white man's face, his hand
deep in knowledge.
In the third and fourth sections, Trethewey turns to autobiographical subjects. Initially, these poems seem less energetic than those in the previous sections, but they have a cumulative power, particularly a group of poems about racial identification and passing, including "Saturday Matinee":
My gold room is another world.
I turn the volume up, over the dull smack,
the stumbling for balance, the clutter of voices
in the next room. I'll be Sandra Dee.
In "Family Portait," Trethewey moves fluidly through the past and the present:
Before the picture man comes
Mama and I spend the morning
cleaning the family room. She hums
Motown, doles out chores, a warning—
He has no legs, she says, don't stare.
Despite her mother's warning, she cannot look away:
I watch him bother
the space for knees, shins, scratching air
as—years later—I'd itch for...