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Title:Natasha Trethewey, Domestic Work and Bellocq's Ophelia

Author(s):Rafael Campo
Source:Prairie Schooner. 77.4 (Winter 2003): p181. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type:Book review
Bookmark:Bookmark this Document

Graywolf Press

Grace Schulman, The Paintings of Our Lives and Days of Wonder, Houghton Mifflin

In her recent book Wonder and Science, a brilliant reading of European early
Renaissance texts describing encounters with the many worlds (both real and
imagined) that humankind has tried to occupy, the literary historian Mary Baine
Campbell writes, "What is human, and how various? ... A question once central to
the task of poetry became the property of a science opposed to the indeterminate
and the inspired." She is referring to a tension she astutely identifies between the
ancient art of poetry, and the nascent 16th- and 17th-century "science" of
anthropology: the recording of details of human cultures, full of astonishment and
terror and joy, and long the province of the poem, was being encroached on by a
novel literature that sought to comprehend humanness by examining New World
peoples much as a botanist might coolly dissect exotic orchids. In the trajectory
formed by these stunning new volumes of poetry under review--
from NatashaTrethewey's post-Reconstruction Deep South to Grace Schulman's
modern New York--one has a sense of how contemporary American poetry
continues to be shaped by these forces of natural beauty versus conquest, of
intuition against definition. Ultimately, through powers of insight that transcend mere
observation, each of these books supports Campbell's conclusion (she herself is a
poet) that poetry yet retains its unique capacity for expressing wonder--which
perhaps is only heightened by science's attempts to supercede it.
Selected by Rita Dove for the Cave Canem Poetry Award, Natasha Trethewey's
first book Domestic Work is profoundly concerned with this fundamental question of
what it means to be human; she teaches us her appropriately elusive definition, by
example after patient example. This precocious book is full of quiet portraits of
dignity and duty, brimming with the unobvious yet gleaming details of daily life. If she
yields perhaps a bit more to the anthropological approach of such concern to
Campbell, she does so like a young Zora Neale Hurston, with such great empathy
for her subjects that she can't help but sing her soulful lyrics. She begins with a
series of poems that examine antique photographs, breathing life effortlessly back
into their subjects; elsewhere, she chillingly documents Jim Crow
disenfranchisement with an almost reverent accuracy.

Restraint perhaps, but not detachment, is what most characterizes her art; in her
poem "Hot Combs," for example, she unearths not just a significant artifact, but
catalogues an emotional find of utterly heartbreaking import:

At the junk shop, I find an old pair,


black with grease, the teeth still pungent

as burning hair. One is small,

fine-toothed as if for a child. Holding it,

I think of my mother's slender wrist,

the curve of her neck as she leaned

over the stove, her eyes shut as she pulled

the wooden handle and laid flat the wisps

at her temples. The heat in our kitchen

made her glow that morning I watched her

wincing, the hot comb singeing her brow,

sweat glistening above her lips,

her face made strangely beautiful

as only suffering can do.

Trethewey, true to the gifted poet within herself, does not merely describe with
precision the terrible comb; her word choice is laden with connotations that insist
she is a participant, an implicated witness, and not just an observer. She shows us
what is in fact a kind of instrument of torture, a device fashioned by human hands
made to serve a racist ideal of beauty, its blackness and grease seemingly
emblematic of what it was employed so painfully to "correct." So Trethewey not only
depicts the damage a cultural construct can inflict (as the reader must ask, does the
little girl see herself as ugly, as deserving of this kind of punishment?); what makes
the poem even more remarkable is how the figure of her mother, even as she toils
under such a cruel brand of oppression, transcends the disgrace of it in her so very
human suffering. Thus ennobled and exalted, "sweat glistening above her lips," by
the poem's conclusion it is her own genuine beauty that shines through, and
endures.
Trethewey also exerts interesting pressures on traditional forms; she herself
identifies as a particular hybrid, an African American woman who can "pass" as
white. This internal duality helps produce entirely unique sonnets shot through with
bluesy inflections, and occasionally-rhymed quatrains that resonate with a kind of
call-and-response undercurrent. It is poems like "Flounder," "Saturday Matinee," and
"White Lies," in which she courageously places herself at the crossroads of two oft-
opposing narratives, that most fully reveal her mettle as a poet. It is at these
moments, when she is speaking her own complicated language of beauty tempered
by loss, that she is making something at once new and yet as ancient as our
heartbeat, a labor of love worthy of the Black laundresses and barbers and elevator
operators whose hardworking fellowship she embraces. Like them, she knows what
she produces is more than just the nourishing stock from "neck bones/bumping in
the pot," or the sheer joy of "a choir/of clothes clapping on the line;" more than mere
knowledge, more that what we can see and taste and touch, what she gives us is a
glorious and ineffable wisdom.
Trethewey's exploration of racial identity takes on a more explicitly narrative but no
less trenchant form in her new book, Bellocq's Ophelia, a novella-in-verse imagined
in the voice of an octoroon prostitute living in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. The
trademark lyrical beauty of her poems is never sacrificed to her equally compelling
plot here, a story in which beauty is itself never quite subjugated, even as her
protagonist confronts the racism that forces her from one form of slavery, "the white
oblivion of cotton," into another, that of imposed male sexual desire. Even the
gripping photographs to which some of the poems allude (and upon which she
bases her title, subtly emphasizing her central theme of possession) fail to capture
the true essence of our heroine. "Now I face the camera, wait/for the photograph to
show me who I am," says Ophelia, oracular, her pale image trapped forever in the
gaze of the beholder--to some, nothing more than a common black woman laborer,
to others, an almost-white woman save for an imagined exotic animal appetite for
sex, and to all, it might seem, merely an object of one sort or another--yet her spirit,
as articulated in these memorable poems, remains forever elusive and, indeed,
indomitable.
It is fitting to move next to a consideration of Grace Schulman's The Paintings of Our
Lives, which stands on the whole as triumphant proof of the absolute necessity of art
in the face of our relatively newfound predilection to objectify, to photograph, to
categorize. Schulman writes to us essentially from our present moment, when
science threatens to try to explain us not just anthropologically, but even from the
deeply wondrous basis of our genetic code; yet she remains acutely aware of the
equally menacing histories that so concern Trethewey. Schulman writes seamlessly
about high art and Battery Park, death and stoplights, as only the best of poets can.
Again, that fundamental question emerges before us, laid bare in poem after
gorgeous poem by her openness to inspiration, her willingness to be indeterminate.

So we should not be surprised that the book begins so utterly humanely with a poem
called "Prayer," which in fact is a prayer that addresses itself to a clash between two
peoples so old and bitter as to seem incurable, the one that still rages between
Israelis and Palestinians. As if to suggest the near-impossibility of what the poem
proposes, she sets as her form the ghazal, whose difficult structure demands that
the last phrase in each two-line stanza not vary sonically. What occurs in this poem
could not be further from the machine guns and plastic explosives that humanity's
scientific prowess has put at its own disposal for enlarging our collective wounds; we
receive instead rapturous lines like:
Stone lions pace the sultan's gate while almonds bloom

into images, Hebrew and Arabic, wrought in Jerusalem.

No words, no metaphors, for knives that gore flesh

on streets where people have fought in Jerusalem.

As this spider weaves a web in silence,

may Hebrew and Arabic be woven taut in Jerusalem.

Here at the bay, I see my face in the shallows

and plumb for the true self our Abraham sought in Jerusalem.

Open the gates to rainbow-colored words

of outlanders, their sounds untaught in Jerusalem.

My name is Grace, Chana in Hebrew--and in Arabic.

May its meaning, "God's love," at last be taught in Jerusalem.

The repetition of the mellifluent sounds at the end of these long, rolling lines--which
at once seem to reject boundaries, even as they are end-stopped before each new
stanza--becomes a soul-changing incantation. More convincing than any sociology,
more powerfully liberating then any newfangled "smart bomb," it is clear that only in
poetry can the hope of peace be sustained. Here, incontrovertibly, poetry becomes
the unquantifiable process of empathy, as two sworn adversaries are joined as one
in the poet's consciousness, and symbolically, in the translation of her beautiful
name. Nearly all of the poems in this incandescent book incite similarly
wholehearted admiration.

In Days of Wonder, Shulman's more recent new and selected volume, we are
joyously reminded of an astonishingly rich career, at the heart of which has always
dwelled that rare kind of intelligence that honors the humane, even as it expresses
awe for the accomplishments of human enterprise. One of my favorites among her
earlier poems is "The Present Perfect," in which she reflects on her childlessness,
seen through the contrasting lenses of both the technologies brought to bear on
infertility, and ironically, the almost equally impersonal expectations of her religion
and family regarding parenting. Rather than a paean to "miraculous" test tubes and
chromosomes, or a rant against rigid Jewish traditions, instead the poem grows into
the quiet loveliness of her living, breathing garden, enjoyed with her husband on a
sunny afternoon. She allows herself to become one with the capacity to give life,
aging and sprawling and at peace, and her poem, in turn, becomes an expression of
the earth's most intangible and undiscoverable energies.

Perhaps Schulman's most amazing achievement comes in the form of a sonnet


sequence, "The Paintings of Our Lives," which deals with the death of her mother,
and which also serves as a kind of culmination to both her books. Besides proving
her to be a master of received form, using meter and rhyme not so much to contain
emotion or to measure feeling, but instead to amplify them, the poem also
accomplishes the most difficult work of narrative across form (and perhaps even
more effectively than Trethewey, who largely abandons her experiments with form
in Ophelia). Furthermore, it seems all the poet's most essential themes: love and
grief, mortality and rebirth--indeed, those most impenetrable and mysterious
ingredients of our humanity--are given voice by Schulman in this indispensable
longer poem. One sonnet in particular, in its humble recognition of what cannot be
fathomed, perhaps demonstrates best of all the awesome power of poetry, speaking
as it does both to unknowable worlds and mind-boggling wonders:
"I dreamed I died and woke in Central Park,"

you said one year ago, green lawns and puffy

maples before you. Spring is back. White pear trees

tiptoe expectantly, like brides. Deep pink

azaleas soon will shock an urban garden

without your wonder. You'd see roses grow

uncut, as though you knew you could not own

them. Once, when we lived just beyond the skyline

that bound the park, I called that first home mine.

Now as the days float past like a cloud's dragon

that changes to a sparrow, I discover


moments; veins on a leaf, bands on a plover.

Perhaps you're in the world Li Po imagined

that we aspire to but never own.

We are indebted to poets like Schulman and Trethewey, who continue to transport
us to these mythic places "beyond the skyline," to "the world ... that we aspire to but
never own." Let us be grateful for tiptoeing white pear trees, that can seem to us like
brides; let us rejoice in all that which we cannot understand. Such is the
irreplaceable, unsurpassable gift of great poetry: to remind us of our souls, of the
inexplicable yet universal substance from which each one of us is made.

Rafael Campo is a poet, essayist, critic, and physician. His most recent book of
poems is Landscape with Human Figure (Duke UP). His newest book of prose, The
Healing Art: A Doctor's Black Bag of Poetry, was released this summer by W. W.
Norton. He has published reviews and poetry recently in Antioch Review, Indiana
Review, the New Republic, and the Washington Post Book World.

Campo, Rafael

Source Citation

Campo, Rafael. "Natasha Trethewey, Domestic Work and Bellocq's Ophelia." Prairie Schooner 77.4

(2003): 181+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.


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