A Voice in the Rose: Reconstitution and Remembrance in Natasha Trethewey’s Papers
In the aftermath of 72 hours spent in the library taking what has come to 89 pages of typed, meticulously-organized notes, as well as a treasured and productive afternoon shared in conversation with United States Poet Laureate Consultant (2012-2014) and Emory University professor, Natasha Trethewey, completing this post has become less a way of completing an assignment, and more of an opportunity to bring to discussion a view of the research process as truly self-revelatory and transformative. My research project involved listening for Trethewey’s narrative discourse in relation to historical representation in her poetry and poetic prose. Through a study of her “personal papers” and “writings,” I hoped to deepen and broaden my understanding of the problem against which the poet-historian writes. Little did I know, however, that in listening for Trethewey’s discourse of history, I would also hear my own in ways which brought clarity and response to questions I had not planned to review.
As defined by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, from whom I’ve borrowed the term, listening for refers to a method of inquiry into, or the act of discerning, another’s voice and the discourse that expresses it.[i] The difference between listening for Natasha Trethewey’s narrative discourse (and ultimately for her voice) and listening to narrative discourse in a poem corresponds nicely to Gérard Genette’s distinction between “auctorial discourse” that “indicates both” the author’s presence “(actual or fictive) and the sovereign authority of that presence in his work,” and the discourse produced by story—a narrating instance one must never confuse with the instance of writing.[ii] In Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, Genette relegates auctorial discourse to “historical narrative or a real autobiography,” where authority lies with the author as maker and composer of the narrative, and whose lived-experience informs the discourse behind the story the narrative tells (213). Hence, to be considered neither “immanent to” nor “deducible from the narrative,” as Gerald Prince warns,[iii] an author’s narrative discourse must be listened for, as well as, if not more than, listened to.
Teaching her work in community-college literature and composition classes; hosting community and neighborhood poetry and critical theory reading groups featuring one of her books each summer; writing, presenting, and publishing articles about Trethewey’s poetry of history; attending her readings, and watching various interviews and presentations via television and the internet, I have spent five years mostly listening to voice. As Peter Elbow would put it, I focused on “whether” a “given text has audible voice, what kind of dramatic voice it has, whether it has a recognizable or distinctive voice, and whether the writer was able to achieve authority of voice” (11).[iv] Surely, one does well to explore what is being narrated on the page, the elements used to produce what is on the page, and the relationships between these elements on the page. But to concentrate on historical foundations and conflicts of contemporary culture as portrayed through Trethewey’s poetry of history, I now sought to listen for the poet-historian’s narrative discourse, not only on, but also permeating the pages of Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Thrall. At the Rose Library, which provided resources nowhere else to be found, I would listen for this voice; I would hear it, and so much more besides. I became deeply acquainted with Trethewey’s discourse of history, what, in terms borrowed again from Lawrence-Lightfoot’s The Art and Science of Portraiture, can be described as an expression of “voice” or the “stance and perspective, revealing the place from which” Trethewey “observes and records the action, reflecting her angle of vision, allowing her to perceive patterns and see the strange in the familiar” (105).[v]
The narrative of my sojourn begins with Rose Library’s mission statement, which deserves quoting in its entirety here. Not only situating the library as a cornerstone of the intellectual and creative life that Emory University’s academic community enjoys on and off campus, and shares across national and international borders, the statement also aids in framing an explanation of how the Rose functioned in helping me to accomplish my task as a research fellow:
The Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library collects and connects stories of human experience, promotes access and learning, and offers opportunities for dialogue for all wise hearts who seek knowledge by preserving distinctive collections; fostering original research; bridging content and context; and engaging diverse communities through innovative outreach, programming, and exhibitions.[vi]
Acquiring the papers of a poet, whose expressed obsession is writing to reclaim a history shared by all Americans from the stand point both of her own experience and that of people she knows, as well as that of the many voices too long gone unearthed and silenced, more than aptly attests to a concern with collecting and connecting stories of human experience.
The library’s collection of Natasha Trethewey’s papers, including her diaries, notebooks, scholarship, and research, reveals the poet-historian’s preoccupations with raising questions through stories of agency and dissonance that petition for a reader’s response, urging us to recall information and/or facts of lived-experience—our own and that of others. Notes on her poetic subjects point up topics and themes that occasion dialogue concerning “the intersections of national and personal memory.”[vii] Particularly moving and engaging is her immediate motivation behind this pursuit of hard history and the extended invitation to her readers to pursue the same. For instance, Trethewey writes of a timeless and timely love for words. Poetry, she notes, is “a beautiful encounter with the power and beauty of words.”[viii] In equal measure, however, I found her more indirect motivation a challenge to heart and head. Several reflections on “duality,” which one might initially misconstrue as a constant concern with being mixed-race, actually amounts to the “voice” of a poet-historian preoccupied and perturbed by reconstitutions of the term mixed-race and the moral implications behind the blind—or worse, the deliberate—acceptance of its consistent use to categorize (and marginalize) human beings. In one notebook entry, she writes: “I was beginning to see what a fascination America has with mixed blood. And then I read William Faulkner’s Light in August, a novel that addressed the nature of duality through a character unsure of his heritage, and made it [an] unusual concern. For me, the mixed-blood duality became a metaphor that represented . . . all the very different parts that make up . . . the shared experience of that which is truly American, mixed, and whole.”[ix]
In response to the general problem by way of the particular, Trethewey rearticulates the term “mixed-blood” or “mixed-race,” to reclaim the culturally and racially interactive American “we” that inevitably gets erased and forgotten when the term is accepted and used to make some Americans look at other Americans, and those others to see themselves, as a “thing” lesser than the “self” they really are—whatever their skin color, their gender, class, age, ability/disability and so on. She concludes an especially telling entry:
“I write to rescue from oblivion stories that have not been told.” Through these “stories” of individual and collective human experience that she collects and connects within the context of history, Trethewey thus extends an invitation to recall our own love for words to a caution against the potential of words to beguile, but even more so, to a call for readers to consider the power of words to communicate the truths of our lives and the parts these play in constituting the larger histories of community, culture, country. This is why I teach literature and composition—I recall my own preoccupations flooding my consciousness after closing the notebook in which Trethewey wrote the entry above—this is why I teach Natasha Trethewey’s work to unfailingly receptive writers and researchers at an urban two-year college; this is why I believe writing a book about artist and art to be vital in our moment of history.
Certainly, the fellowship that helped defray travel costs from Philadelphia to Atlanta for my two-week sojourn at the Rose represents the library’s investment in promoting access. But best representing, for me, its commitment to learning, the library made available materials conveying Trethewey’s interpretive voice, an utterance dedicated to alerting others to the absence of truths or facts of lived experience in order to pinpoint cultural realities that enlighten her discourse of history. “With the feeling of loss,” the poet-historian writes in another notebook, “is the attempt to regain something—fill in those gaps with memory or whatever else. I write to fill these empty places.” I felt especially at home in Trethewey’s annotated reading lists, which contextualize her preoccupations with the stories of unrecorded / unheard voices signaling issues of reconstitution, “for good or ill,” as James Boyd White would say.[x] Together, they confirmed what I had come so far to make certain I knew, that Trethewey writes simply and complexly against “forgetting” as a by-product of reconstituting language in ways that negatively impact the shaping of culture. In turn, she writes for the sake of “remembrance.” In poems and poetic prose, narrative discourse unearths discrepancies between ideological inscriptions of national history and people’s stories as racialized individuals across time and space to whom this Nation owes remembrance. For this cause, she entreats her readers to locate our own stories as equal contributions, not to a narrow, stagnant metanarrative, but to a broader, dynamic history of a shared national place. What I did not know, going forward in my research at the library, was that her call to remembrance would also elicit from me a response of faith in the very voice driving my own scholarship, pedagogy, and art—one that attests to the usefulness of literature, and how poetry matters in particular.
Perhaps, the library’s knowledgeable and personable administration and staff comprise all the evidence one needs of MARBL’s mission to offer dialogue opportunities “for all wise hearts who seek knowledge.” In addition to their managing most efficiently the Rose Library’s obligation to preserving distinctive collections, fostering original research, and bridging content and context, I found Rosemary Magee to be gracious and encouraging; Christeene Alcosiba, Kathy Shoemaker, and Gabrielle Dudley, kind and generous in their indispensable guidance; and Courtney Chartier, Heather Oswald, Marlo, Ed, and John to be professional, yet friendly in their efforts to facilitate my research process. Although I did not meet him, I must also name among his fine colleagues, Kevin Young, curator of The Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, on whose behalf I was awarded the Rose fellowship. And surely the other Rose researchers, with whom I had the opportunity to dialogue on and off site, have their place as well, particularly concerning the library’s pledge to engage diverse communities through innovative outreach, programming, and exhibitions. But I think all of these wise hearts would agree with me that surpassing every other wonderful experience I was afforded, the most unique to Rose Library’s mission remains the opportunity to listen for Trethewey’s narrative discourse on paper and in person with the poet-historian herself.
Natasha Trethewey’s publications, including instances of literary criticism, her theories on craft, and other theoretical notes on history and poetry appear devised to stimulate thought and continuous reflection on the possibilities of metaphor and recurring image as mnemonic devices she can (and does) use to communicate “testimonials” of agency on the part of the voiceless across time and space, which bear witness to America’s racial and cultural hybridity as an interactive union with contentions and connections intact.[xi] But especially profound are Trethewey’s thoughts on private history, pedagogical training, and a number of aesthetic and intellectual influences that, when taken as an aggregate, not only relate these “testimonials” to her life, but also to ours, teaching us specifically, personally, relevantly that no matter how they differ, our stories of human experience are similar. Witnessing thus, her discourse of history, her “necessary utterance,” permeating poem after poem and line after line of poetic prose, appeals to the empathetic soul, pressing readers to take up the cultural work of illumining how lived-experience often negates false notions of race, and particularly racial hierarchy and difference, still prevalent in the twenty-first century. At home in the arrival and determinacy of her voice and its mode of expression, Trethewey writes: “Poetry has the potential of being our best means of communicating with each other, of touching not only the intellect, but also the heart. . . . It enables us to connect with others through our most humane impulses, to engage through the projection of our emotional understanding some of the most important knowledge that we have.”[xii]
In an afternoon’s conversation between poet and critic, contemporaries, between friends, Trethewey remained consistent in identifying the gain of an education in “empathy” as the subsequent impact she would want her work to have on how people in the near and far future understand the usefulness of poetry in our everyday lives. As for me, well, I walked away from our table at one of her favorite writing spots, just as I walked away from my desk at the Rose Library every day—faithful and grateful in knowing that I had learned a great deal more about how Natasha Trethewey fashions her discourse of history, the signature of her careful and caring approach to the stories of American life, which quicken her papers and remarkable collections of literary art in equal measure. I had listened for her voice and its expression in the Rose. I heard it; now, I heard my own. More assuredly, I know that my book, The Poet-Historian’s Craft: Natasha Trethewey’s Poetry of History in the African-American Intellectual Tradition is ultimately about how literature in general, and poetry in particular, matters; how literary art can be defined as useful in preserving and helping to shape an American culture as diverse as it is diffusive. My work is also about a love for the means by which literature is created, and by which cultures are constituted—words. I write to meet the poet-historian’s challenge to “remember” (and not forget) by contributing my own story to a fuller version of American history and urging others to do the same. I, too, realize that we as a people are “whole” precisely because we are “mixed.”
[i] Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, The Art and Science of Portraiture (San Francisco, CA, 1997), 99-100.
[ii] Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, NY, 1983), 258-259.
[iii] Gerald Prince, Dictionary of Narratology (Lincoln, NE, 2003), 8.
[iv] See Peter Elbow, “What Do We Mean When We Talk about Voice in Texts?” NCTE, https://www.google.com/? gws_rd=ssl#q=What+Do+We+Mean+When+We+Talk+about+Voice+in+Texts %3F+peter+elbow (accessed 25 June 2016).
[v] Lawrence-Lightfoot, The Art and Science of Portraiture, 105.
[vi] The Rose Library mission statement is available on the library’s website: http://rose.library.emory.edu/about/about-us/our-mission.html.
[vii] Beyond Katrina: Two: 2009, Natasha Trethewey papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
[viii] Notes Section of Diary 2005, Natasha Trethewey papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
[ix] Notebooks, no date, Natasha Trethewey papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
[x] See James Boyd White, When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community (Chicago, IL, 1992), 21.
[xi] For elaboration on the definition of “voice as witness,” see Lawrence-Lightfoot, The Art and Science of Portraiture, 87.
[xii] Natasha Trethewey, “Emory University: Faculty Address 2012 Emory University Convocation,” iTunesU video, https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/natasha-trethewey-19thu.s./id5542 00140?mt=10 (9 September 2012).