Two-term US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer-Prize Winner Natasha Trethewey has won nearly every major award under the sun. And yet her poems never rest on their laurels, always striving for a sharper examination of the memories our country—particularly the South—might prefer to bury. For Trethewey, racism remains both a national concern and a familial one. In “Repentance,” she details with painterly precision an argument rooted in these historical tensions.
When I spoke with Trethewey over the phone on a frigid November day, she was at a bittersweet moment in her own history. It was the week of the publication of Monument: Poems New and Selected, a powerful testament to her life’s work as a poet. It was also the one-year anniversary of a fire that took a profound toll on her and her family. Before hanging up, Trethewey apologized for rambling. To the contrary, her openness left me awed. There was nothing to forgive.
– Ben Purkert for Guernica
Natasha Trethewey: I hope I chose a good poem for this. Well, actually, I didn’t have much of a choice.
Guernica: What do you mean?
Natasha Trethewey: I lost most of my drafts in a fire.
Guernica: Oh no! What happened?
Natasha Trethewey: It was last year on Thanksgiving morning. My husband I had just taken jobs at Northwestern, and we had just moved to Evanston, and were having a library built to house my father’s books. My father was a poet and he died in 2014.
Anyway, the fire started in the library and it’s still under investigation. We don’t know exactly what happened. But we were lucky; we had a house full of family including a baby, but thankfully it didn’t happen while we were asleep. It started in the morning at around the same time as my brother-in-law began making himself breakfast. So when the smoke alarm went off, even though it was not in the kitchen, we all teased him about burning his food or something. I used a towel to fan the alarm, so that it would stop going off. Eventually it did stop beeping, so we thought everything was fine. Then, about ten minutes later, my mother-in-law who was sitting in the living room, which is across the hall from the library, just happened to look to the left, and she saw orange and blue flames.
She came running and we realized that it was a real fire. It moved quickly up the grand staircase and into our bedroom and closet and down the hall, all the way to my husband’s study at the back of the second floor. Then it turned the corner, went up the stairs to the third floor where my study is. The fire department, when they got there, they managed to put out the fire at the top of that landing. But in a fire like this, what the fire doesn’t get, smoke and water does. We lost a lot.
Guernica: I’m so relieved that you’re alright.
Natasha Trethewey: Thank you. We were very lucky, my family and I.
Guernica: “Repentance” is a poem very much about family… Can you talk about how it came into being?
Natasha Trethewey: It began with a quarrel that I had with my father. It happened in 2008 when he was visiting me, back when I still lived in Decatur, Georgia. Then, years later, I must’ve seen the Vermeer painting and something about the composition took me back to the argument. After we fought, I was sitting there feeling regretful, by myself, at the table. Then I stood to clean up, to put away the dishes, and caught my own reflection in a mirror, just as that woman might have caught herself in the mirror in the painting. And that mirror used to be a man until Vermeer painted over it. I learned that when I researched the painting, that it has a pentimento in it. There are actually multiple; there was also a dog on the floor that Vermeer erased too.
Guernica: It’s interesting to consider how this concept of pentimento applies to poetry revision. It makes me wonder if there’s always some trace of the original draft in the final. Like, even if we delete a line, it’s never completely gone.
Natasha Trethewey: Yes. I think you’re right. And what are the forensics that we need in order to find the trace of what was there before? In the early draft, I included the lines “Now, / were she to turn, the woman would see / herself, reflected in the mirror he’s become. / How like my father I’ve become.” Those words have been erased in the poem’s final version, and yet they’re still everywhere.
Guernica: What compels you to write poetry inspired by paintings?
Natasha Trethewey: Well, paintings, just like poems, have a lot to do with the historical moment in which they’re made. They reveal the material culture of a moment. They’re not only giving us a vision of some historical event, but also historicizing it within the moment of the work’s making. And so I’m drawn to them because I write a lot about history. I’m also just very visual myself.
When I write anything, I have to see it in my mind’s eye as a scene or I can’t write it. So when I first started writing as a young poet, I turned everything into a kind of snapshot, a photograph in my head, in order to find the right words to convey the image. I often still turn to actual photographs or paintings. I’m interested in the kind of frisson that you find between objects, their juxtapositions, the spaces and the absences that we see when we consider what’s been cropped or left out. And in the case of pentimento, what has been erased. It’s the absences that I’m most drawn to.
Guernica: Can you comment on the use of spaces—or absences—in the poem? I see that you stripped out the punctuation.
Natasha Trethewey: That was partially a visual choice. I think that it’s a bit more painterly to have each sort of little grouping of words like that, the way a brushstroke might appear on a canvas. I wanted both the brushstrokes and the spaces that might suggest the visual absence of what has been painted over and erased. Also, sonically, it’s very different for me. It would be much easier to read if it were punctuated, but I try to read it as it appears and it feels jarring to me when I do that. It reflects the violence of the erasure itself.
Guernica: I definitely feel the violence in the final version. It’s as if the quarrel remains unresolved in a sense.
Natasha Trethewey: Yes, it’s an ongoing struggle. I struggle even to read it as it’s notated on the page. It’s as if I’m meaning to choke out the thing I have to say.
Can I offer a bit more backstory? This poem was originally supposed to be in my book, Thrall, which was dedicated to my father. He was one of my earliest teachers. I took his class when I was in graduate school in creative writing and that book was very much for him. Anyway, Thrall was a book I needed to dedicate to my father because by that time in our relationship, I needed to have a very intimate personal conversation with my father but in a very public forum, in the only language that he would really listen to, of course, and that’s the language of poetry.
Guernica: What were you trying to express to him?
Natasha Trethewey: I wanted to examine the ways that even my beloved father was a product of received knowledge and centuries of thinking about race and difference, that is in the air that we breathe now. He still harbored some notions of racial difference and hierarchy that came from the Enlightenment that hurt me deeply.
My relationship with him became especially complicated after the success of my previous book, Native Guard, because it garnered for me a lot of attention and suddenly I found that people were making this easy assumption that I’m a poet simply because my father was a poet. That, you know, it was just sort of passed down from father to child. And in the process, my mother was getting erased as if she had nothing to do with why I’m a poet, how I became a poet. It was very connected in my mind to my whole life when white people would say if I did anything well, “Oh, well that’s your white side.” As if only good traits, only what made me successful was part of what was passed down to me from my white parent. My white parent was also my father, my white parent is also a poet, so therefore my mother was deemed insignificant, as if nothing good came from her. And I’m a poet because I lost her. I was furious at my father because I felt he was participating in the narrative.
He was actually writing a few things himself that were suggesting that that was the case. And so, when I began the book, it was after that 2008 quarrel. I remember being at AWP with my father sometime after that, and we were drinking late into the night at AWP, as people often do, as we certainly did. And I said to my father, I don’t know what he said that upset me, but I said to him, “You know what, I’m going to write some poems about you.” I said it because he was starting to write a little bit more, not poetry, but nonfiction. And in his nonfiction, he was taking a story that was my story, my experience and the experience of my brother, who is not his child, but rather my mother’s child from when she remarried, that he didn’t even know firsthand, he only knew from what I had told him and it seemed opportunistic. He was also, I think, starting to reveal things that a daughter would say to her father in confidence and believed that she had his confidence. And I remember asking my father that if I had any right to my privacy. And he said, “No.” And I said, “Why not?” and he said, “Because it’s truth.”
So basically he was willing to make use of anything, including something that I might have said to him in confidence, as long as it was truth, so that he could write about it. And I thought that was unethical and I was furious at him. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone quite as specifically as I’m telling you this.
Guernica: What happened after that?
Natasha Trethewey: Well, after I told him that I would be writing poems about him, he just looked at me and quoted Yeats: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” Initially I just sat there at the table. Then, later on, I thought more about it and I felt better because indeed, that is actually what I had taught myself to do in writing Native Guard.
If I begin an argument with my nation, about historical memory and historical erasure, around forgetting these Civil War soldiers, these black Civil War soldiers, their pivotal role in the war and the aftermath for them, the real argument of that book, the real quarrel became with myself for not properly remembering, memorializing my mother, for whom no tombstone had been erected. So, just as those black soldiers had been erased from the landscape because there was no monument erected to them, that was sort of the same for my mother. I was the person whose duty it was to remember her, yet I had not properly done it, the daughter.
All this to say, I knew something about making the quarrel with myself, because I had done it before. But try as I might, I couldn’t get this poem to work in time for the release of Thrall. It took me years to figure out the final edit that fixed it.
Guernica: What was the edit?
Natasha Trethewey: It needed those last two words: “or mine.” It needed the implication of the self. And what wounded me deeply was that, you know, I’d been trying to work out a poem called “Repentance” that would have meant so much, I think, for my father had it gotten into Thrall, but it didn’t, and then he died. And I wasn’t able to see it and repent until after he was already gone. Thrall begins with these two epigraphs, one from Robert Penn Warren and the other from T.S. Eliot that read together, “What is love? / One name for it is knowledge.” “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
I chose those epigraphs early on, and when I chose them, what they signified for me was my own personal need to forgive my father. But by the time I finished writing the book, I realized that I needed to be forgiven before I needed to forgive. But “Repentance” never made it in there.
Guernica: And now it appears in Monument. How do you feel about that?
Natasha Trethewey: With Monument, I wanted to have a narrative arc that was wholly different from the arc of each individual collection. “Repentance” is the first poem in the final section, so it’s critical to the overall structure, to a kind of closure. As the poem itself says, it’s an attempt “to make it right.”
“Repentance” originally appeared in The New Yorker.