It’s no wonder Natasha Trethewey’s third book of poetry, Native Guard, won the Pulitzer Prize. With great passion, precision, and technique, these poems take the reader through the heart of the south and the heart of a family.
Rather than summarize the collection, I’d like to examine the title poem. “Native Guard” is the hub of the collection’s wheel, dealing with each and every major theme with grace and reservation.
“Native Guard” is one of the most breath taking pieces I have read in some time. Half way through I knew it was going to become one of my favorite poems. It begins with an epigraph attributed to Frederick Douglass. It reads, “If this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all that is sacred what shall be remembered?” Douglass is, of course, referring to the Civil War, an event Trethewey re-creates with the harshest clarity. Through ten dated stanzas she channels one member of the Louisiana Native Guards, described in the notes as “the first officially sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army.”
“Native Guard” is a rumination on memory, a fact evident from the first line, where, in reference to his life as a slave, the speaker declares, “Truth be told, I do not want to forget.” He explains his decision to join the Native Guards in the simplest terms: “…I thought to carry with me / want of freedom though I had been freed, / remembrance not constant recollection…” This recollection of want pushes him to join the fight in order to preserve his freedom, and that of others. It is the same want that compels him to chronicle his time in the service.
Each stanza begins and ends with a memory, the final line of each becoming the first line of the next. They read like diary entries, each relating a specific occurrence or realization. For instance, in the second stanza the speaker writes;
…We’re called supply units –
not infantry – and so we dig trenches,
haul burdens for the army no less heavy
than before. I heard the Colonel call it
Lines like these highlight the oft forgotten fact that racism remained rampant even among those fighting to free slaves. They also lay bare the danger of fighting for abolition alone, that freedom does not guarantee equality. The speaker goes on to write about the journal he is keeping all these observations in.
…this journal, near full
with someone else’s words, overlapped now,
crosshatched beneath mine. On every page,
his story intersecting with my own.
This idea of intersection can be extended to the war in general. Even with freedom on the horizon, the white man’s story continues to intersect and even guide that of the black man.
The fifth stanza finds the speaker guarding white confederate war criminals.
…They are cautious, dreading
the sight of us. Some neither read nor write,
are laid too low and have few words to send
but those I give them. Still, they are wary
of a negro writing, taking down letters.
X binds them to the page – a mute symbol
This stanza makes one reflect on the meaning of the words “native guard”. The speaker, a native of the land, born and bred in the south, guards soldiers who consider themselves the only real natives. As the speaker takes dictation and writes letters home to these men’s families, he chronicles their story; the story of those who don’t have the power to tell it themselves.
In the final stanza the Native Guards undergo a name change. They become the Corps D’Afrique. With the exclusion of the word “native” from their title the soldiers are stripped of their humanity, made strangers in their own land. With one simple revision the speaker knows theirs will become the “untold stories of those time will render / mute”.
In Native Guard Trethewey adopts the role of scribe, taking dictation from those history has rendered mute. Broken into three sections, each one gives voice to a particular person or experience. In section one Trethewey eulogizes her black, southern born mother. In section two she depicts racism as experienced during slavery and the Civil War. In the third sections she recounts the experience of growing up bi-racial in the south under Jim Crow and during the Civil Rights Movement. None of these experiences have been properly discussed, examined, or acknowledged within American history, and Trethewey’s refusal to let them remain footnotes is what gives these poems their kick. She has delivered an unquestionably memorable collection of poetry that any lover of history or verse should have on their bookshelf.