II: High Anxiety
of Emory Alumni
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her poems, Natasha Trethewey captures ancestral memory
like vintage photographs kept in a shoebox beneath her bed,
pulled out and examined one by one. She reads into lined faces
and distracted gazes all the hopes and desires extinguished
by incessant labor; dreams too large to contain but too risky
to say aloud.
figured out that I had a whole collection of poems that try
to explore the everyday work that we do, Trethewey
says of the poems collected in Domestic Work,
which won the Cave Canem poetry prize, a Mississippi Institute
of Arts and Letters Book Prize, and the 2001 Lillian
Smith Award for Poetry. Not just the work of earning
a living and managing households, but also the work of self-discovery,
relationships, the people we live with or without, and of memory
who joined the creative
writing faculty at Emory this fall, has written poetry since
she was a child growing up with her African-American mother
and stepfather in Decatur, summering at her African-American
grandmothers home in Gulfport, Mississippi, and visiting
her white father in New Orleans.
traces of each locale and culture simmer in her wordsheavy
blossoms in afternoon rain, the Delta heat, gumbo and red beans.
Rita Dove, who wrote the introduction to Domestic Work,
says Tretheweys sonnets, traditional ballads, and free
verses shot through with the syncopated attitude of blues
create a tapestry of ancestors . . . lives pursued on
the margins, lived out under oppression and in scripted oblivion,
with fear and a tremulous hope. Theres the work-at-home
seamstress who wears a wig every day just in case someone drops
by . . . the father turned amateur boxer who has learned to
survive by holding his body up to pain.
a recent class, Trethewey guided a circle of undergraduates
through each others poems, stanza by stanza, searching
for text and subtext. What is the undercurrent of meaning?
she asks. What were you getting at in that image?
Trethewey is now a critically acclaimed poet whose work has
appeared in the American Poetry Review, the New England
Review, the African American Review, and the Best
American Poetry 2000, she remembers all too well the determined,
sometimes painful, journey she made to claim her craft.
first book of poetry was placed in the library of Venetian Hills
Elementary School in Atlanta. It was filled with trite
little rhymes about historical figures like George Washington
and Martin Luther King Jr., Trethewey recalls, grinning.
My third-grade teacher bound it and the librarian went
along with her and placed it on the shelves.
kept writing, becoming editor of the Redan High School newspaper,
then turning to fiction and short stories. My mother died
when I was a freshman in college, and to try to grapple with
that huge loss, I turned to poetry, to try to make sense of
the world and me in it, she says.
in a process that allows her to identify with struggling poets
everywhere, her early results were less than stellar. I
actually wrote a poem that had a line in it about sinking into
an ocean of despair, with the word sinking going
diagonally down the page, she says, shaking her head.
My father and stepmother are both poets and they absolutely
ripped that poem to shreds. I ran upstairs sobbing, vowing never
to write another poem.
says now she appreciates their honesty. My father wasnt
going to say nice things to me to spare my feelings, because
he took seriously my potential, says Trethewey, who dedicated
Domestic Work to him. Now it goes both wayshe
sends me his work to critique.M.J.L.
is no winter here of heart . . .
opening sentence of the poem Cemetery Autumn,
one of those featured in the award-winning collection, The
Island of Lost Luggage, by Janet
E. McAdams 96PhD, gets at the core of McAdamss
work: while some of her themes are chilling, her poems also
are infused with a human warmth and reason that lend balance
to even the darkest among them.
poems are about loss and recovery, compassion and despair, complicity
and resistance, McAdams said in an interview in late September.
I want to remind readersand myself, continuallyof
the worlds miraculous beauty. But I also want to map out
a kind of responsibility not to turn away from its ugliness.
I think the greatest poetry is there to both comfort and disturb.
I know in the past few weeks, Ive found poetry to be of
collection won a 2001 American Book Award and the 1999 First
Book Award in Poetry from the Native Writers Circle of
the Americas/Wordcraft Circle. Noted for drawing meaningful
connections between the personal and the political, McAdams
poetry gives equally careful consideration to conflict in Central
America, the destruction of the environment, and the twisted
machinations of love and loss. The title poem, dedicated to
a hometown friend who died in the 1983 Korean Airlines crash,
grapples with the mysteries of mortality and passage. Rich in
concrete details that lighten their touch, many of her poems
have a decidedly activist bent.
earning her Ph.D. in comparative literature at Emory, McAdams,
who is of Scottish, Irish, and Creek Indian descent, helped
found the Native American History Month program at the University.
Her poetry has earned her fellowships from both the Georgia
and Alabama state art councils. She is now the Robert H. Hubbard
Professor of Poetry at Kenyon College. P.P.P.
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