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Nelson's violent images call upon the reader to behold the corpse of Till, forcing the reader into a state of seismic cultural shock, as America has long been eager to forget its racist legacy (Harold, 2006, p.263). Trethewey's first lines of her book are gentler, but there is always the urge to remember: "Truth be told, I do not want to forget anything of my former life" (Trethewey, p.1)
The calls her poetic collection an act of memory "Erasure, those things that get left out of the landscape of the physical landscape, things that aren't monumented or memorialized, and how we remember and what it is that we forget. I wanted to kind of restore some of those narratives, so those things that are less remembered (Brown, 2007). Her use of the sonnet form over her cycle of poems is not as perfectly consistent as Nelson's, but repetition and remembrance motivate her to use sonnets, pantoons, and other repetitive forms to encapsulate her poetic project's purpose. Her choice of verse is slightly less formalized and less in the Elizabethan tradition than Nelson's, and also harkens to recent uses of verse, as does her choice of allusions and vocabulary.
Trethewey still calls upon the ghosts not only of her literary progenitors, but also her mother and her native Mississippi, one of the most brutally racist states in the nation. Like Nelson, she too uses a system of interlocked sonnets, the last line of each one becoming the first line of the next, as she writes of Union soldiers who "keep / white men as prisoners -- rebel soldiers, / would-be masters" (Trethewey, 2006, p.27). A more recently-evolved rhythmic poetic form than the sonnet in the form of a poetic pantoun remembers the night Trethewey's family discovered a burning cross on her lawn. And finally she reflects upon "Mississippi, state that made a crime/of me -- mulatto, half-breed, native -- / in my native land, this place they'll bury me (Trethewey, 2006, p.46). Once criminal to be born, yet Southern still, like her mother's body finds a home in the earth: "At my mother's grave, ants streamed in/and out like arteries, a tiny hill rising/above her untended plot....the mound is a blister on my heart,/a red and humming swarm" (Trethewey, 2006, p. 46). The blister began as a child for Trethewey herself when the poet "overheard things in the Woolworths when I was a child, people saying, "Oh, poor, little thing," as if they had some understanding that I was being born biracial into a world that was still very difficult for interracial marriages and biracial children" (Brown, 2007). Difficult, but not a world she desires necessarily to flee.
Past and present are connected in both texts. Nelson's text is a text of anger at the present and sorrow, however, as well as commemoration for a specific dead figure who becomes a saint and martyr for a movement and for the poet. It is meant to make the reader confront history and move the reader to action. Trethewey's homage to her family and to anonymous soldiers is gentler, but like the ants it still has a sting, as the reader comes to appreciate how deep the legacy of racism lies within the South specifically, and how many powerful memories have been hidden by a history that is only half a story. And the act of two American women claiming the male, European tradition of sonnets is also profound, as it shows the potential of verse to be relevant today, provided it is reconfigured to address contemporary concerns of identity politics.
Black Soldiers in Blue: African-American Troops in the Civil War Era. Edited by John
David Smith. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Brown, Jeffery. "Pulitzer Prize Winner Trethewey Discusses Poetry Collection."
Transcript of Online New Hour. 25 Apr 2007. 6 Jun 2007. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/jan-june07/trethewey_04-25.html
Harold, Christine & Kevin M. DeLuca, "Behold the Corpse: Violent Images and the Case of Emmett Till." Rhetoric & Public Affairs. 8.2. 2005. 263-286
Nelson, Marilyn. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Pinkney, Andrea Davis "Marilyn Nelson: Author Program, in-depth Interview."
Transcript of an audio interview. w ww.TeachingBooks.net. 6 Jun 2007. http://www.teachingbooks.net/content/Nelson_qu.pdf
Natasha Trethewey: Biography." Houghton Mifflin. 2007. 6 Jun 2007. http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/catalog/titledetail.cfm?titleNumber=689660
Rushdy, Ashraf. "Exquisite Corpse" Transition. 9.3. 2000. 70-77
Schneider, Dan. "A Review of a Wreath for Emmett Till -- Sonnets to Honor a Young
Martyr." Dean Children's Book. 5 Jun 2007. http://www.bookpage.com/0504bp/children/wreath_for_emmett.html
Shipers, Carrie. "Review of Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard." Prairie Schooner. 80.4
Trethewey, Natasha. Native Guard. New York: Houghton Mifflin.…[continue]
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