The poet’s hand

Evolution of a poem

US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing, shares the original manuscript of her poem “Calling” to reveal “the progression through the changes, avenues, dead ends, and all the strange places a poem may go before it is pared away to the shimmering thing it becomes.” The poem appears in her latest collection, Thrall (2012).

Handwritten version of poem 'Mexico' - Say that the trinity of childhood is mother, father child: know that someone must be ghost. [what other verbs to begin each stanza?] If memory is always fragment, it is also augur of loss. -What- come back piecemeal, from this distance there is light streaming in, light and the sound of water in a basin I know is white, my mother's footsteps on the tile floor. / Come back (all of it piecemeal) know that (nothing -is- linear), the mind circling, the long road come back at day's end, the desert all around us, the sun so large the sky seemed smaller, burdened by its weight. / What's left is souvenir - plastic skeleton I clutched in the market. / Mexico / Always there is light streaming in / the sound of running water / in a basin I know is / -cool and- white / my mother's footsteps / on the tile / floor / And Before that: what must / have been a desert / [where I sat atop a mule] the mule I sat on / posing / (before my father's camera) / for the picture Typed version of poem 'Mexico' - It always comes back like this: light streaming in, the sound of water / in a basin I know is white, my mother's footsteps on the tile floor; / and the long road at day's end, the desert all around us, the sun / red and bearing down, the sun so large the sky seemed smaller, / burdened by its weight. What's left is souvenir -- plastic skeleton / I'd clutched in the market, memento mori -- and fragment; / memory incomplete, complete as an augur of loss, piecemeal / in its discorded parts: my father was there / and he was not. In his box of photographs / I am sitting on a mule. he watches from the other side / of the camera. There are mountains in the distance behind me. / On the back he has written Tasha: Monterrey, 1969 -- / but I recall only the flat road, the desert, the great sun and / light streaming in a window, light filtered by water / closing over my head. How long before someone, my father, / pulled me out? Memory is the sun's dazzle / on the pool's surface above me, is the primal sound / from my mother's throat as I sink, words I can't make out / her quick footsteps on the tiles. Always, she is fragment -- / augur of loss. I see her reaching, arms outstretched, / her voice muffled and far away, her body between me / and the high sun, a corona of light around her face -- her face blurred / (then, now) as through water: a distant, wavering lens. Calling / -- Mexico, 1969 / Why not make a fiction / of the mind’s fictions? I want to say / it begins like this: the trip / a pilgrimage -- my mother / kneeling at the altar of the Black Virgin, / enthralled—light streaming in / a window, the sun / at her back, holy water / in a bowl she must have touched. / / What’s left is palimpsest—one memory / bleeding into another, overwriting it. / How else to explain / what remains? The sound / of water in a basin I know is white, / light streaming in, the sun behind her, / her face— / as if she were already dead—blurred / as it will become. / / I want to imagine her before / the altar, rising to meet us, my father / lifting me / toward her outstretched arms. / What else to make / of the mind’s slick confabulations? / What comes back / is the sun’s dazzle on a pool’s surface, light / filtered through water closing / over my head, my mother -- her body / between me and the high sun, a corona of light / around her face. / [What] -All- I know is this: I was drowning / and saw a dark Madonna. Why not / call it a vision? someone pulled me through / the water’s bright ceiling / and I rose, initiate, from one life / into another.

Read the finished poem