Skip to main content

Poet Natasha Trethewey, Hymning the Native Guard

Natasha Trethewey was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard, her most recent collection of poetry. The title refers to a regiment of African- American soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War.

Trethewey grew up the child of a racially mixed marriage in Mississippi. Her mother was murdered by her stepfather; these, along with the South and its singular ways, are recurring themes in her poetry.

Trethewey teaches creative writing at Emory University. Native Guard is her third collection.

44:14

Other segments from the episode on July 16, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 16, 2007: Interview with Natasha Trethewey; Review of the films "La jetée" and "Sans soliel."

Transcript

DATE July 16, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Natasha Trethewey, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for
Poetry, on her book "Native Guard," growing up biracial in
Mississippi and Georgia, and her mother's murder
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Natasha Trethewey, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry this year for
her book "Native Guard." Many of the poems are personal, relating to growing
up biracial in Mississippi and Georgia. Her white father and African-American
mother married when interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi.
Trethewey's parents divorced when she was a child. Her mother remarried and
was murdered by her second husband in 1985, about a year after they divorced.
Trethewey writes about that too, in her collection of poems.

One section of the book is devoted to the Native Guards, regiments of black
soldiers who had been slaves before fighting on the Union side in the Civil
War. Natasha Trethewey is an associate professor of creative writing at Emory
University in Atlanta. I asked her why she's publishing poems about her
mother's murder now, over 20 years after it happened. She told me it took a
long time before she could write poems about the murder that were any good.

Ms. NATASHA TRETHEWEY: For many years, I would try, occasionally, to write a
poem about it, and none of the poems that I wrote over a 20-year period since
her death were successful to me. They weren't able to express the tremendous
grief artfully, in a way that I thought that a poem should. And so I didn't
start writing ones that make it into this book until I moved back to Atlanta
about six years ago, and I think returning to the physical landscape of my
past and of that great tragedy is what finally made me start writing the poems
that I have here now in this book.

GROSS: How was your mother killed?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: My stepfather came to her apartment on the morning of June
5th, 1985, and forced himself into the apartment. He found my brother outside
waiting at the school bus and demanded his key and opened the door and found
my mother there. And she struggled a bit to get away and ran out into the
parking lot, where he caught up to her and shot her twice, at close range, in
the face and neck.

GROSS: I want you to read a poem called "What Is Evidence?" and please
introduce it to us before you read it.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: "What Is Evidence?" is a poem that tries to get at what
remains, both in terms of the physical and the memory of something, and I
started thinking about writing this poem when I had visited my mother's grave
again and felt overwhelmed by how there seemed to be nothing left of her or
nothing left to remind me of her.

(Reading) "What Is Evidence?

Not the fleeting bruises she'd cover
with makeup, a dark patch as if imprint
of a scope she'd pressed her eye too close to,
looking for a way out, nor the quiver
in the voice she'd steady, leaning
into a pot of bones on the stove. Not
the teeth she wore in place of her own, or
the official document--its seal
and smeared signature--fading already,
the edges wearing. Not the tiny marker
with its dates, her name, abstract as history
Only the landscape of her body--splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal--her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.

GROSS: That's a great poem. You know, you titled it "What Is Evidence?" and
when you introduced it, you talked about evidence of her life that remains,
but it also seems to me that it's about evidence that could be used in her
murder trial...

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Yes.

GROSS: ...or in previous trials, if she brought him to trial about abuse.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: That's right. Those things that are in the first lines are
the kind of things that were recorded by emergency workers or the lawyers that
she talked to in order to secure her divorce, and also things that came up in
the first trial a year before when he tried to kill her the first time.

GROSS: How did he try to kill her the first time?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: The first time he tried to kill her was February 14th, 1984.
I was a senior in high school and I was back in my bedroom getting ready for
school. My brother was sitting at the kitchen table, and he saw my stepfather
approach my mother in a parking lot, and she began screaming, and I couldn't
hear her, and he came back into my room and said, `I just saw Mama and Daddy
get in the car together and drive away.' And I said, `Go back and finish your
breakfast.'

I knew that she wouldn't just get in the car and drive away, and he had made
her do this in order to wait until we left for school so that he could bring
her back to the apartment. And we did go to school. I called my grandmother.
I called the battered women's shelter, to put people on alert to look for her.
And in the meantime he made her drive back to the apartment and he began
taunting her with a syringe full of battery acid.

GROSS: Oh God.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: So he was stabbing it in her arm, the needle into her arm,
and that is how he had intended to kill her the first time.

GROSS: How did she defend herself?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, she tried to talk to him a lot to buy some time, and
she had--I think that she had actually called for a repairman to come and fix
our dishwasher, though I'm not sure. It might have just been some great idea
that she had. But at some point the police knocked on her door, and she had
been stalling him. And the police knocked, and she told him that it was the
dishwasher repairman for the apartment complex, and of course, they would come
in if we weren't at home, and so he let her open the door so that she could
get rid of him. And it was the police instead.

GROSS: Right. Your mother had been a social worker, and I imagine, as a
social worker she might have helped battered women in the past, and if so, did
that help her figure out how to defend herself and how to extricate herself
from the relationship?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I think that because of my mother's masters in social
work, as well as her position in Georgia state and DeKalb County government,
she had all of the information and resources at her fingertips. She was the
kind of person who would know exactly what to do and all the procedures to
follow. And what has always struck me as particularly tragic is that even
someone like her, who was very well educated and connected to the social work
systems here in Georgia, still couldn't escape.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Natasha Trethewey. She won the
Pulitzer Prize in Poetry this year, and we're talking about poems in her
latest collection, "Native Guard."

There's another poem I'd like you to read about your mother, and this is
called "Graveyard Blues." Would you introduce it for us before you read it?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: This poem, "Graveyard Blues," is about the day we buried my
mother, June 11th, 1985.

(Reading) Graveyard Blues

"It rained the whole time we were laying her down
Rained from church to grave, when we put her down
The suck of mud at our feet was a hollow sound

When the preacher called out, I held up my hand
When he called for a witness, I raised my hand
Death stops the body's work, the soul's the journeyman

The sun came out when I turned to walk away
Glared down on me as I turned and walked away
My back to my mother, leaving her where she lay

The road going home was pocked with holes
That home-going road's always full of holes
Though we slow down, time's wheel still rolls

I wander now among names of the dead
My mother's name, stone pillow for my head"

GROSS: What kind of hole did it leave in your life when your mother died,
when she was murdered?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Oh, I think it was the biggest hole imaginable. Not long
after she died I had a dream about her, and in the dream we were together, and
I knew she was dead, and we were walking around a kind of track or something.
My stepfather was approaching us from the opposite direction, and as he got
closer, I looked at him and I smiled at him, knowing fully what he had done,
and I spoke kindly to him, and when he passed us, my mother turned to look at
me and she had a hole the size of a quarter in the center of her forehead, and
light was streaming through it, and she said to me, `Do you know what it's
like to have a wound that never heals?'

And I didn't answer, and we walked around again and, as we made the turn again
to come back to the same spot, he was there again coming toward us, this time
holding a gun and pointing it at her. At that moment, I threw myself in front
of her in the dream and I screamed, `No!' and that's when I woke up. But what
had stayed with me was that hole, that wound that never heals.

GROSS: My guest is Natasha Trethewey. She won this year's Pulitzer Prize for
Poetry for her book "Native Guard." We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Natasha Trethewey. She won this year's Pulitzer Prize for
Poetry for her book "Native Guard." Several poems in the book are about her
mother. Her mother was abused by her second husband. He murdered her in
1985, the year after they divorced.

How aware were you when they were married, your stepfather and your mother, of
the way that he abused her? Did she tell you about it? Did you see evidence
of it?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: The first time that I was aware of it, I was in the fifth
grade. And it happened in the late evening, perhaps 11:00 or so, but it was
past my bedtime. And my brother had a room that was right next to their
bedroom. My bedroom was down the hall, and so I think that's why I didn't
know sooner what was going on. And sometimes my brother, if he was afraid to
sleep by himself--he was a toddler then--I would sleep in one of the bunk beds
in his room, and on that particular night I woke up to hear the sound coming
from their bedroom of him hitting her and her pleading for him not to.

GROSS: And how old were you? You were in fifth grade?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I was in fifth grade. And the next morning I went to school
and I was very close to my fifth-grade teacher and I asked her to come outside
the classroom so I could talk to her. And we went down to the girls' bathroom
and I told her what happened. And she said, `Well, sometimes adults are upset
with each other.' And I was crestfallen because I knew that wasn't the right
response. It was just a response that said, `This is how it is, and there's
nothing that really can be done.'

And so that night I went home and I went to my mother's room. She was sitting
on the bed folding clothes and I'd got up my courage and I said to her in kind
of abstract terms, `Do you know how, when you have someone you love and you
know they're hurting?' and she looked at me and she nodded her head, and she
had this very large bruise and a bump over her eyebrow, and later on that
night I heard her telling him, telling my stepfather, `Tasha knows,' as if he
might stop if he knew that I knew.

GROSS: Did he ever threaten you?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Not physically. He would often devise devious punishments
for me when I was a child that mainly involved telling me that I was retarded
or that I was like one of the patients at the mental institution where my
mother was an administrator at the time and that I should be committed. And
so he'd make me pack my suitcase--and this is, you know, probably when I was
in the fourth grade or something--he'd make me pack and suitcase and then we'd
drive around Atlanta for about an hour with me thinking that I was being taken
there.

GROSS: That's tormenting a child.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Yeah. I think it definitely was. (Laughs) It probably seems
strange that I would laugh at it now, but at some point I realized that
he--that it was a bluff, and that gave me a kind of power, I think.

GROSS: Did you ever ask yourself how your mother fell in love with him and
stayed for him for so long considering how he abused her and tormented you?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, she didn't know that he tormented me. I never told her
that. I had some idea that it was my responsibility to suffer in silence, to
go along with my mother's life, assuming that she was the parent and she knew
best. And I also think that, for a lot of battered women, you don't know at
first that he's that kind of guy. I think it takes a while to figure that out
and, depending on the man, it might take a little bit longer. At first it
probably came out as some bit of jealousy that was cute or flattering, and I
don't think he actually began to hit her until about four years or so into
their marriage.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: And by then they had my brother, they'd bought a house.
There was a kind of trap. And so she started with what she thought, I think,
were the best options, and that was therapy and marriage counseling, and so I
know that they did that for years.

GROSS: You know, we've been talking about how your stepfather, who was your
mother's second husband, murdered her after their divorce. Her first husband,
your father, is white, and your mother was black. They divorced when you were
young, and then you lived with your mother. Before we talk about what it was
like to grow up mixed race, I'd like you to read a poem called
"Miscegenation," and this again is Natasha Trethewey from her latest
collection of poems called "Native Guard."

Ms. TRETHEWEY: (Reading) Miscegenation

"In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong--mis in Mississippi

A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same as slaves
The train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi

Faulkner's Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name
For the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi

My father was reading "War and Peace" when he gave me my name
I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi

When I turned 33 my father said, `It's your Jesus year--you're the same
age he was when he died.' It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi

I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name,
Though I'm not; it means "Christmas child," even in Mississippi"

GROSS: You know, in that poem, "Miscegenation," you mention that when your
parents married, they broke two laws. One was the law of miscegenation.
Black people and white people were not allowed to marry, and that law was
still on the books in Mississippi, which is why they got married out of state.
What was the second law of Mississippi that they broke?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Going out of state to get married...

GROSS: Oh!

Ms. TRETHEWEY: ...and returning to Mississippi.

GROSS: It's catch-22.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Right. They get you either way.

GROSS: When you were growing up, did you get different reactions when you
were out with your white father as opposed to when you were out with your
black mother?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I did. At an early age, I could detect subtle differences in
how we were treated if I was with my father or with my mother and together,
what it meant when we were out together. And that's the way that I learned a
little bit about how it was possible for me to pass for white when I was with
my father and be treated better than if I was downtown with my mother in a
store.

GROSS: Was there ever a part of your life in which you wanted to pass for
white or even tried to?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Oh, yes. As an adolescent--I think that, you know, it's hard
enough being an adolescent and wanting so much to fit in with your peers, your
schoolmates and to erase any sign of difference, to be part of the group, and
being biracial but also being black in a predominantly white school marked me
as different. And so upon arriving at a new school, it was quite possible for
me to pass by not saying anything at all. Often people would mistake me for
white when I was younger, and if I didn't correct them, there would be a
period of time that they just thought I was.

GROSS: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey will be back in the
second half of our show.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Natasha Trethewey. She
won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book "Native Guard." Many of
the poems are autobiographical, some of them are about growing up biracial in
Mississippi and Georgia. Her white father and African-American mother married
when interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi.

Where there consequences your parents faced living in Mississippi and being an
interracial couple, and were there consequences that you faced as a child of
mixed race?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I think that the difficulties really weighed on my
parents and their marriage, but I think that, beyond the kind of problems that
people who are in that kind of relationship--any kind of marriage--would have,
my parents also had these external forces that were quite scary. For example,
when I was a baby, the Klan burned a cross in the driveway of my grandmother's
house where we were all living briefly, and I think that there was always that
threat somewhere looming behind us.

GROSS: How scary was that for you when you saw a cross burning on your lawn,
and did you even understand, were you old enough to understand yet what the
Klan was and what the intention was of burning the cross?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: No. I really was too young to understand any of that, and my
parents, of course, were keeping me from seeing what was going on, and so a
lot of it has returned to me as stories that they told in recollecting what
happened.

And even now, we wonder what the intention of the cross burning was. Because
my grandmother lived across the street, in Gulfport, Mississippi, from the
Mount Olive Baptist Church which, in the late '60s, was doing voter
registration drives for black voters. And so my grandmother had a driveway,
the church did not have a driveway. And so on Sunday she let the church park
its bus in her driveway, and so it's quite possible that people thought that
the driveway belonged to the church, and that the cross was burned as a threat
to the people who were doing voter registration. It might have also been a
threat to this interracial couple who was living inside the house, or it might
have been a way to threaten both.

GROSS: How old were you when your parents divorced?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I was six.

GROSS: And then you went to live with your mother?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: That's right. My mother and my father divorced during the
time that my father was getting his Ph.D. at Tulane, and we had been
commuting back and forth from Gulfport to New Orleans, which is about an
hour's drive. We had an apartment in Gulfport, and my father had a roommate
in New Orleans that he would go and stay with during the week for class, and
sometimes we'd go and visit him on the weekends, or he'd come to Gulfport.
And so it seemed like a very gentle transition, strangely, for me, when they
divorced and my mother and I moved to Atlanta, for my mother to start graduate
school.

GROSS: Did it change your racial identity when there was no longer like a
white father in your home?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I can't say that it changed my racial identity because,
though I was a biracial child and my parents talked to me about what they
thought that meant, I also understood that I was a black child...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: ...and that didn't change.

GROSS: Now, your father is a poet and a professor of literature at Hollins
University in Virginia, which is where you got your masters degree, and I
believe he was teaching there at the time?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: That's right.

GROSS: At the risk of sounding obvious, he must be awfully proud you won the
Pulitzer Price this year.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Indeed he is. He is a proud papa right now.

GROSS: Were there poems you remember him reading to you as a kid?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Oh, yes. From the time that I knew, I understood that he was
a poet, which was probably about the time that I was in the seventh grade.
That's when I really got it and knew what it meant. His first book had come
out, and I had read all those poems myself, but he also read them to me,
talked about them, because a lot of them--well, they're very autobiographical
about his own family and growing up in Canada. And so it was great to hear
those poems, because they were the first poems that I really felt that I could
enter into, not as simply a kind of a distant reader, the way that you might
read a poem in class at school, but as an intimate reader who knew the stories
and found my own place in the language.

GROSS: My guest is Natasha Trethewey. She won this year's Pulitzer Prize for
Poetry for her book "Native Guard." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Natasha Trethewey. She won a
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry this year. Her new collection is called "Native
Guard."

There's three main subjects that you write about in "Native Guard." There's
the murder of your mother, who was murdered by your stepfather, from whom she
was divorced. There's poems about growing up biracial and about the marriage
between, you know, your mother's first marriage to your father, who was white.
Then the middle section of the book is a series of 10 poems--I believe they're
sonnets...

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...about the Native Guard, and I'm going to ask you to read a section
of that, but before I do, tell us the story of the Louisiana Native Guard.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, the Louisiana Guards were the first officially
sanctioned regiment of African-American soldiers for the Union Army in the
Civil War, and they were mustered into service in September, October and
November of 1862, and the 2nd Regiment was stationed just off the coast of my
hometown, Gulfport, Mississippi, on Ship Island, where there was a fort called
Fort Massachusetts, and they were there to guard Confederate prisoners.

GROSS: And were these mostly ex-slaves?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, the 2nd Regiment actually was made up primarily of
former slaves. The 1st Regiment was made up of a lot of free men of color
from Louisiana, many of whom might have been slave owners themselves. In the
2nd Regiment, there was a Major Dumas, who was the son of a white Creole
father and a mulatto or octoroon mother. And when his father died, he
inherited a plantation and all of its slaves, and though he was someone who
did not agree with slavery or want to hold slaves--it was illegal in Louisiana
at the time for him to manumit those slaves, but when the Union Army started
recruiting black soldiers and mustering these troops, he joined and he freed
his slaves and encouraged the men of age to join as well.

GROSS: Now, the first sonnet I'm going to ask you to read from this cycle of
sonnets about the Native Guard is called "April 1863," and it relates to an
incident during the Civil War, a battle in Pascagoula. Tell us the story of
Pascagoula before you read it.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Pascagoula is another town near Gulfport, and there was a
skirmish in April of 1863 between the 2nd Regiment of the Native Guards and
some Confederate troops, and toward the end of the battle, the black soldiers,
the Native Guards, were retreating back toward the beach so that they could
board the ship and go back to the fort on the island, and at that point it was
time for the the Union sailors who were on board the ship to fire at the enemy
to give them a little bit of protection so that they could get back, they
could retreat safely and get back on the ship. Instead of doing that, the
sailors fired directly at the Native Guards, their own Union soldiers.

GROSS: And why did they do that?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, some historians who've written about the island have
talked about that there had been a little bit of tension on the island between
some white troops from the Northeast, Union troops who were there, and the
Native Guards, not wanting to--these white troops not wanting to interact,
take orders from, or whatever the black troops.

GROSS: These poems that you've written about the Native Guard, whose voice
are you writing them in?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I am writing in the imagined voice of one of the men who
might have been a former slave of Major Dumas and who then would have been
freed and enlisted in the 2nd Regiment.

GROSS: And the 2nd Regiment, is that the regiment that was fired on by white
soldiers from the North?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Yes it is, the 2nd Regiment is the one that was stationed at
Ship Island guarding Confederate prisoners and was fired upon.

GROSS: Would you read "April 1863" and then "June 1863" for us?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Yes, I'd be happy to.

(Reading) April 1863

"When men die, we eat their share of hard tack,
trying not to recall their hollow sockets,
the worm-stitch of their cheeks.
Today we buried the last of our dead from Pascagoula
and those who died retreating to our ship,
white soldiers in blue firing upon us
as if we were the enemy

I thought the fighting over, then watched a man fall beside me,
knees first as in prayer, then another,
his arms outstretched as if born upon the cross.
Smoke that rose from each gun seemed a soul departing.
The colonel said, `an unfortunate incident,'
said, `their names shall deck the page of history'

June 1863

Some names shall deck the page of history
as it is written on stone. Some will not.
Yesterday word came of colored troops dead
on the battlefield at Fort Hudson, how
General Banks was heard to say, `I have no
dead there,' and left them unclaimed

Last night I dreamt their eyes still opened,
dim, clouded, as the eyes of fish washed ashore,
yet fixed, starting back at me. Still,
more come today, eager to enlist,
Their bodies, haggard faces, gaunt
limbs--bring news of the mainland.
Starved, they suffer like our prisoners.
Dying, they plead for what we do not have to give.
Death makes equals of us all, a fair master"

GROSS: What made you so interested in the Native Guard? I mean, the poems
you read are largely about former slaves who ended up serving in the Union
Army, and some of them actually were the guards for Confederate prisoners.
It's such an interesting story. How did--why did you find it interesting
enough to write a whole series of poems about?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, there are several things that interested me about the
Native Guards. One of them is that they were actually mustered into service
first as a Confederate regiment. And later on, when the Confederates failed
to arm them, they were disbanded, and lots of them talked about having felt
compelled, not only because they might have been protecting their own
property, but also some of them, I think, felt that they didn't have a choice.
And so, for example, someone like Major Dumas was happy when given the
opportunity to join again, but this time as a Union soldier.

And I think that what's fascinating about them having this dual nature is the
way that it speaks to our larger American history, but it also speaks to my
own personal history. I use, on the cover of this book, a photograph of a
page from the diary of the colonel who was stationed out there with the
troops. He had confiscated this diary from the home of a Confederate, and
because of a shortage of paper, he cross wrote in the diary over entries that
were already there, and so it becomes this perfect metaphor for the
intersections of North and South, but also, I think, the way that I extend the
metaphor in the book, by giving the diary instead to this black soldier, it
also becomes the intersection of slave and free and black and white, which is
of course part of the intersections of my own life growing up biracial with a
black mother and a white father.

And I think it's summed up in a way, in these lines that I just read from
"June 1863": "Some names shall deck the page of history as it is written on
stone--some will not." It wasn't until I was, I think, far along into writing
the book, the book that's the part about the Civil War and that history, that
I realized that these other poems that I was writing, the poems that are
elegies for my mother, were also connected. And what connected my mother to
the history of these Black soldiers is that neither of them had a marker.
Neither of them had a monument--not on my mother's grave, not on Ship
Island--that would tell us they've been here.

GROSS: There was no marker on your mother's grave?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: No, I never put one on there, and this was one of the things
that I realized in writing the book. I hadn't put a marker on my mother's
grave all that time because I thought I had to put her name, the name she had
when she died, which was still my stepfather's last name. Though she was
divorced, she kept his last name, and I didn't want to put that on a permanent
marker. And I didn't want to put my father's last name, my last name, there
either, because that wouldn't have acknowledged my brother. And it never
occurred to me in all those years that I could have put her maiden name,
Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, the woman she was.

GROSS: So is there still no marker, and do you think you might buy one
sometime?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I think I'm going to go down there and put one on there now.
A colleague of mine, when I was visiting University of North Carolina, is the
person who first suggested to me her maiden name. And I felt so ridiculous
when he said it, at how, in all that time, it had not occurred to me that that
was the way to do it. But it was because of talking about this book, and so I
think in many ways having written these poems has allowed me to figure out
something that, you know, had stumped me for over 20 years.

GROSS: You won the Pulitzer Prize this year. It's certainly, you know, one
of the absolute highest honors an American writer can, you know, an American
poet can get. Do you feel like it's changed your life in any way?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I've certainly been busier for the past few months. I
don't know how I'll think about this a year from now or whatever--even a few
months from now in terms of it changing my life--but I think that what I'm
most delighted with is that I received the honor at this time in my life for a
book that tries to honor the memory of my mother.

I was 40 the day that they called--that all the reporters started calling to
tell me that I'd won, the same age my mother was when she died, and I was also
just shy of my 41st birthday and I knew, years ago, that I was writing this
book and I wanted it to, in terms of the timing, to appear at the same--at
this moment for me, because reaching that age was very symbolic for me. What
I couldn't have imagined is that it would have been honored in this way.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey, congratulations on your Pulitzer. Thank you so
much for speaking to us and for reading some of your poems for us. Thank you.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Thank you, Terry. This has been delightful.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize this year for her book
"Native Guard." She's an associate professor of creative writing at Emory
University.

Coming up, John Powers reviews two films he considers masterpieces that have
just come out on DVD. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: John Powers reviews a just-released DVD duo of Chris
Marker's films "La Jetee" and "Sans Soleil"
TERRY GROSS, host:

For more than 50 years, the French director Chris Marker has been known for
his films which blend travelogue, philosophy, history and politics. Although
he's greatly admired by cinephiles, his work has never really reached a wider
public. Criterion has now released a DVD containing perhaps his two most
famous works, "Sans Soleil" and "La Jetee," which critic Pauline Kael once
said might be the greatest science fiction film every made. Our critic at
large John Powers says that Marker is one of his intellectual heros. John
thinks Marker's work may be more relevant now than ever.

JOHN POWERS reporting:

In Don DeLillo's novel "The Names," there's a renegade director named Frank
Volterra who riffs on the nature of the movies. `Film's more than the 20th
century art,' he says. `It's part of the 20th century mind. It's the world
seen from inside.' Nobody's work embodies that claim better than Chris Marker,
the publicity-shy French filmmaker, now in his 86th year, who's the closest
thing the movies have ever produced to Diderot or Voltaire.

Over the years, Marker fought in the French resistance, wrote novels, wandered
the globe, and even produced a dazzling CD-ROM, this when he was well into his
70s. But above all, he's made films, tackling everything from the mysteries
of his Japanese girlfriend to the depressing historical arc of communism,
Marker does something that few people have ever done: He turns movies into
essays. He uses them as a way of thinking, and you can see this is in a new
DVD from Criterion that brings together his two masterpieces, "La Jetee" and
"Sans Soleil."

First released in 1962, "La Jetee" is Marker's one truly narrative film, a
28-minute science fiction story set in post-apocalyptic Paris. In hopes of
saving humanity, scientists want to send somebody back to '60s France, but to
do it, they need somebody whose memory is glued to that period. They find it
in the nameless hero who, since he was a small boy, has been haunted by the
image of a woman he saw on the observation deck at Orly Airport. And so he
goes back to find her.

As a plot "La Jetee," may sound conventional--and, in fact, it was remade as
the Hollywood film "12 Monkeys." But what makes the movie unforgettable is
that it's done entirely in still photographs, except for two teasing seconds
of motion when a woman blinks her eyes. You might think this would make the
story hard to get into, but in fact, it does precisely the opposite. These
still photos become the very image of shattered time and fractured memory, so
when we finally see motion, real cinematic movement, the effect is hauntingly
transcendent. We see things anew.

Something similar happens in "Sans Soleil," from 1984, in which a woman
narrator tells us what letters she's received from a globe-trotting friend, an
obvious stand-in for Marker himself, who tells her about what he's seen in his
travels. All this is accompanied by footage from Iceland, Africa, San
Francisco and, above all, Marker's beloved Tokyo. We see pachinko parlors and
roaring volcanoes. We visit the locations of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and
gaze at beautiful women--Marker is French, after all. And in one lacerating
bit of footage, he shows us the killing of a giraffe, one of the most haunting
deaths I've ever seen on a screen.

I'm afraid this may make the movie sound like a glorified travelogue, which
would be a bit like saying Joyce's "Ulysses" is about some guy's day in
Dublin. In fact, "Sans Soleil" is a rich, seductive exploration of time,
travel, history, death and politics. It's filled with brilliant perceptions,
like the remark that memory's not the opposite of forgetting, but its lining.

Marker has always been a committed man of the left, but never in the pushy,
Michael Moore sense. He's reflective. Here, over footage from Guinea-Bissau,
we get a rumination on the fate of its president, Amilcar Cabral after
revolution freed that country from Portugal.

(Soundbite of "Sans Soleil")

Unidentified Woman: Rumor has it that every third world leader coined the
same phrase the morning after independence: `Now the real problems start.'
Cabral never got a chance to say it. He was assassinated first. But the
problems started and went on and are still going on. Rather unexciting
problems for revolutionary romanticism: to work, to produce, to distribute,
to overcome post-war exhaustion, temptations of power and privilege. Ah,
well, after all, history only tastes bitter to those who expected it to be
sugar coated.

(End of soundbite)

POWERS: It's Marker's genius that he's able to tie everything together--the
political and the personal, the excitement of great events and the beauty of
banality. All the things, he says, that quicken the heart. And because all
of this is rooted in his life and his travels, we might reasonably see him as
the forefather of today's bloggers, who put all their thoughts, their photos
and their video footage out there for all the world to see.
Characteristically, Marker likes such democratized technology rather than
fears it, which is just one of the reason why he matters more than ever. His
work doesn't merely make him the bloggers' precursor, it makes him the gold
standard, the platonic ideal. You see, Marker knows that it isn't enough to
dash down your thoughts or grab footage. By themselves, such things mean very
little. The real skill comes in how you weave them together, how you link
ideas and images to create something personal that documents and illuminates
the way we live now. Every blogger should be sent a copy of Marker's work
with a note that says simply, `This, my friend, is how it's done.'

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed a new DVD with two
films by Chris Marker.

FRESH AIR is now podcasting. If you'd like to download copies of our show, go
to our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

How the Trump White House misled the world about its family separation policy

The Atlantic's Caitlin Dickerson spent 18 months filing lawsuits for documents to put together the story of the Trump administration's policy of separating migrant families at the border.

42:55

After a career of cracking cold cases, investigator Paul Holes opens up

Veteran cold case investigator Paul Holes talks about pursuing killers and the emotional toll of obsessing over crime scenes and talking to victims of horrific crimes. He has a new memoir called Unmasked.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue