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  • You Are Not Safe in Science; You Are Not Safe in HistoryOn Abiding Metaphors and Finding a Calling
  • Natasha Trethewey (bio)

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The author with her mother Gwen and father Rick. Family photographs courtesy of the author.

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1. Abiding Metaphors

When I was three years old, I nearly drowned in a hotel pool in Mexico. My earliest memory is of what seemed a long moment, as if I were suspended there, looking up through a ceiling of water, the high sun barely visible overhead. I do not recall being afraid as I sank, only that I was enthralled by what I could see through that strange and wavering lens: my mother, who could not swim, leaning over the edge—arms outstretched—reaching for me. She was in the line of the sun and what she did not block radiated around her head, her face like an annular eclipse, dark and ringed with light. [End Page 13]

It was 1969, a trip with my parents—my black mother, my white father. Looking back now I can see this is where it begins, what Robert Frost insisted was a necessary education, a proper poetical education in the metaphor, and the establishment in my consciousness of the abiding metaphors by which my work as a poet is always influenced. Beyond my vivid memory of nearly drowning—an image to which I'll later return—only one other image of the trip remains: a photograph. In it, I am alone, there are mountains in the distance behind me, and I am sitting on a mule.


in his essay "Education by Poetry," Robert Frost wrote: "What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don't know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don't know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history."

Like Frost, my father believed in the necessity of a thorough grasp of figurative values. He was a poet, and had begun my education in metaphor as early as I can remember. It was his idea to place me on the back of the mule—a linguistic joke within a visual metaphor: the sight gag of a mixed-race child riding her namesake, animal origin of the word mulatto. It was my father, too, who—perhaps oblivious to his own metaphors of animal husbandry—referred to me as a crossbreed in one of his poems, who taught me the phrase Heinz 57, a term for someone racially mixed. "All mixed up," he'd said. Of the many photographs from my early childhood only this one suggests what I'd come to understand that each of my parents wanted me to know.

The picture represents my father's desire to show me the power of metaphor: how imagery and figurative language can make the mind leap to a new apprehension of things; that we might harness, as with the yoke of form, both delight and the conveyance of meaning; that language is a kind of play with something vital at stake.

In my work I turn often to photographs and other documentary and archival evidence, seeking to describe not only the "luminous details" of history, to borrow Pound's phrase, but also to focus in on what Roland Barthes referred to as the "punctum"—the thing that pricks you, wounding you into recognition. If there is a [End Page 14] luminous detail, a punctum, in the photograph I described, it is not the fringe of lace on my sock, like an eyelash around my ankle, nor the delicate smocking on the bodice of my dress, but the way—simultaneously, it seems—that the mule and I have turned our heads to face the camera. This is what takes me out of the frame to contemplate the circumjacent conditions of the historical moment, of law, of received...


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