February 7, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
“If this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all/ things sacred what shall men remember?”
~ Frederick Douglass
Since Natasha Trethewey chose this quote to introduce her poem “Native Guard,” I also begin with it. As the centerpiece of a book about remembering, memory, and records, this quote provides an important frame. Composed of ten sonnets, each one from a different date, the narrator describes daily life for the Native Guards, a unit composed mostly of freed slaves. While Trethewey writes with an exquisite attention to form, I will analyze very little about form today. Rather, I want to focus on some themes from her book Native Guard.
The narrator of “Native Guard” is the imagined voice of a thirty-three year old slave-turned-military man. Each sonnet catalogues information from a different date of the soldier’s journal. Just like journal entries always do, these entries act as a conduit to the past. They allow the reader a vision into the chaotic, turbulent times surrounding the Civil War. The Native Guards controlled white prisoners at Ship Island, and while originally stationed with white officers, racial tensions quickly surfaced. Even troops from the North did not embraced fighting alongside freed slaves as this article explains. It claims , “The mixture of black and white troops created an explosive atmosphere, and a racial dispute between the men from Maine and the black soldiers from Louisiana broke out within a week. [Major General Nathaniel P.] Banks quickly decided to withdraw the two companies of white soldiers, and the 2nd Louisiana Native Guards remained as the primary garrison for Ship Island.” Trethewey’s poem reinvisions these struggles, and more, through the notes left by a recently-freed soldier stationed at Ship Island.
In the first stanza, dated November 1862, the reader discovers that the author is thirty-three years old and though “born a slave, at harvest time,/ in the Parish of Ascension” this man was also taught to read and write which would have been a unique and valuable skill at that time. In December 1862, he journals that his unit, instead of being part of the “infantry,” which granted honor and prestige, is now being referred to as a mere “supply unit.” But the reader also learns that the narrator’s journal was taken from an abandoned home and filled with another’s words. Due to lack of paper and resources, this journal of two races, overlapped in a “crosshatch” pattern becomes a physical reminder of the people and the land. This idea repeats a couple of stanzas later in an entry dated January 1863 which describes the scars on a man’s back. It reads, “It was then a dark man/ removed his shirt, revealed the scars, crosshatched/ like the lines in this journal, on his back.” There are many mentions of the entangled historical web of these two races, and the absurd pressures of being a black guard now in charge of white prisoners.
This soldier also writes letters for the illiterate white prisoners. In this task and in their post, the narrator feels the ties that bind them all and describes this irony. In an entry dated February 1863, he writes “We’re all bondsmen here, each/ to the other. Freedom has gotten them/ captivity. For us a conscription…” This poem is about individual voices as much as it is about the collective. In fact, the individual gives us the universal. The poem reveals so much information of cultural significance, not the least of which is the fact that Ship Island barely exists anymore, and is only tentatively referenced anymore, such as this short article by the National Park Service. In writing the narrative, Trethewey hopes to reclaim some of that lost history. The poems act as an echo of Douglass’s quote: If we forget these types of details, these types of conflicts, these types of men, “what shall men remember”?
Death and loss also permeate the poem, such as the loss of family, lifestyle, memories, and belongings. Each man pays a dear price which the narrator clearly laments. He says, “Tending gardens/ I thought only to study live things, thought/ never to know so much about the dead.” In the ebb and flow of their journey, the final journal entry explains that the troops have, yet again, a new name: “the Corps d’Afrique,” further distancing them from their goal of inclusion and equality.
Perhaps my favorite feature of this poem, however, are three short words: “Truth be told.” Trethewey bookends the piece with this phrase as she seeks a truth that quickly slips off paper. She seeks a truth which facts sometimes miss. She seeks a truth which includes justice and equality. This series of sonnets is a fantastic demonstration of skill, technique, language, love, and observation. In selecting such uncomfortable content and styling it into sonnets, Trethewey enacts a monument to those Native Guards. She also reminds the reader that the story is very rarely complete and quickly forgotten, but it is our duty to hold these memories.
Native Guard, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, is an astounding book of poetry. It pays attention to so many simultaneous details and is a very worthwhile reminder of the continued struggle for equality and justice. Also, next week’s blog will focus on another aspect of Trethewey’s poetry.
Listen to a 2007 interview from Fresh Air where Trethewey also reads some of the poems from this text. https://www.npr.org/2007/07/16/12003278/poet-natasha-trethewey-hymning-the-native-guard
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