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Poetry Review    

Bellocq's Opelia
Natasha Trethewey
Graywolf Press, 2002
ISBN: 1-55597-359-0


Domestic Work
Natasha Trethewey
Graywolf Press, 2000
ISBN : 1-55597-309-4




Rita Dove selected Natasha Trethewey's Domestic Work for the 1999 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. In Dove's introduction to the collection, she writes, "In the calm and unsmiling gaze of these women, (in a poem entitled "Three Photographs"), one senses not an entreaty, but a challenge: to bear witness and give face to the legions of nameless men and women who cooked, scrubbed, welded, shoveled, hauled, and planted for an entire nation, helping turn the American Dreamscape into reality." 

Working class women tell their stories in these sonnets, ballads, and free verses.  Using family myths and narratives, the poet's persona depicts every day life for maids, hairdressers, seamstresses, and factory workers in the Mississippi Delta region. Trethewey's use of the particular transcends regional, class, and color differences. Generations of Americans remember the insurance salesman represented in "Collection Day"... "In our living room/he'll pull out photos of our tiny plot,/show us the slight eastward slope,/all the flowers in bloom now, how neat/the shrubs are trimmed, and SEE HERE,/ THE TREES WE PLANTED ARE COMING UP FINE./ ....... We look for him all day,...." In their hearts, these women know the only piece of real estate they'll ever own, "... something to last: patch of earth/view of sky." 

Compassionate, poignant, and intensely personal, Domestic Work established Trethewey as one of the major voices in the youngest generation of American poets. 

Belloqc's Ophelia is an equally compelling collection. Best known for his early 1900s photographs of the prostitutes in the red-light district of New Orleans, E. J. Belloquc's photographs inspired Natasha Trethewey to create the life of Ophelia. The child of a white father and a prostitute, Ophelia learns at an early age to earn her father's approval by standing very still. 

The Storyville Madame of the brothel where Ophelia lives teaches her how to behave, to become what men want or need her to be. By the time, Ophelia meets Belloqc, she understands, " ...... Now I face the camera, wait / for the photograph to show me who I am." 

In "Father - February 1911," Ophelia recalls childhood visits from her own father,".... how / I feared his visits ....  / How I wanted him to like me/ think me smart, / a delicate colored girl .... / I search now for his face among the men / I pass in the streets, fear the day a man / enters my room both customer and father./

Bellocq's Ophelia verifies Trethewey is a poet to be reckoned with. Trethewey's observations are acute, her language is precise, and her control of narrative offer a glimpse into the deepest emotions of the human heart.

Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1966. She has received fellowships from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Bunting Fellowship Program. A recipient of the Grolier Prize and a Pushcart Prize, her work was included in The Best American Poetry 2000.

Cave Canem was founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady to promote the artistic development of African American poets. The Cave Canem Poetry Prize is an annual award for the best first collection of poems submitted by an African American poet, selected by publication by an accomplished writer. In addition to the Cave Canem Prize for Poetry, Domestic Work won the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry.

Trethewey lives in Decatur, Georgia, and is Assistant Professor of Poetry of Creative Writing at Emory University.


Pam Kingsbury
Southern Scribe Reviews


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