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Poet Natasha Trethewey’s new collection ‘soars,’ says NYT

‘Monument’ explores personal history, American history and voices often overlooked

Natasha Trethewey

Renowned poet Natasha Trethewey’s new collection is receiving rave reviews.

The two-time U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner and a member of the Northwestern University faculty, released “Monument: Poems New and Selected,” which includes several unpublished works, as well as some of Trethewey’s most celebrated poems. The collection has been discussed by the New York TimesVanity Fair, the Chicago Tribune and NPR, among other news outlets. 

“Trethewey’s arresting images, urgent tone, and surgically precise language meld with exacting use of rhyme and anaphora to create an intensity that propels the poems forward,” said Publishers Weekly. “This collection is ideal for new readers seeking a representative sample of Trethewey’s best work.”

A Mississippi native, Trethewey grew up the child of an interracial marriage; her parents wed at a time when their union was against the law in Mississippi and much of the segregated South. Trethewey’s racial identity and her mother, murdered by her estranged second husband (Trethewey's stepfather), along with the South, are recurring themes of her new collection.

Vanity Fair noted Trethewey’s ability to “connect her personal experience with America’s broader narrative” in a recent interview in which Trethewey discussed the central role her mother’s life and death have had on her work. 

“I’ve been writing with two existential wounds my whole adult life. One was the wound of history — being born black and bi-racial in Mississippi, in the United States, when my parents’ inter-racial marriage was still illegal there and in 20 other states in the nation. I was persona non-grata in the eyes of the law, but also thought of as an aberration to custom in the Deep South,” Trethewey told Vanity Fair. “The second existential wound was losing her when I was 19. I didn’t quite understand, even when I wrote ‘Native Guard,’ the way that those things were connected.”

In a New York Times review, Dwight Garner wrote, “The human details in Trethewey’s work — those crabs, that music, those cracked palms — are like the small feathers that give contour to a bird’s wing. ‘Monument’ is a major book, and in her best poems this poet soars.” 

“Monument,” which happened to publish amid the consternation and partisan calamity of the 2018 midterm election on Nov. 6, has inspired conversations about racial identity, violence against women and the importance of poetry in our contemporary world.  

“Through poetry we hear each other differently than we do with all the noise of the daily world around us, with all the clichés and soundbites and partisan language,” Trethewey said in a filmed reading of her poem Waterborne. “Poetry asks us to forget all of that and to hear each other as human; to connect not only with the intellect but also the heart.”

Trethewey joined the Northwestern faculty as the Board of Trustees Professor of English at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in the fall of 2017. 

She teaches in the undergraduate creative writing program and Northwestern’s Litowitz Creative Writing Graduate Program, a new joint master of fine arts in creative writing and master of arts in English degree program. 

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Trethewey is the recipient of a 2017 Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities category, as well as the 2016 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, which recognizes distinguished poetic achievement, among many other honors. 

Her first collection of poetry, “Domestic Work,” won the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize for exceptional work by an African-American poet. The poems were inspired by her grandmother, who began work as a housekeeper in 1937 and later worked as an elevator operator, beautician, factory worker and seamstress.

Trethewey’s second collection, recognized as a notable book by the American Library Association, is “Bellocq’s Ophelia: Poems.” The novella in verse tells the fictional story of a mixed-race prostitute based on historic photographs taken by E.J. Bellocq in New Orleans in the early 20th century.

Trethewey’s third volume, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Native Guard: Poems,” juxtaposes her personal family history with the forgotten history of the Louisiana Native Guard, a black Civil War regiment. The poems pay homage to those who served and to the memories of her own life and childhood.

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