You are as steadfast as your name
suggests and I am as mute
as my own namesake.
Such a strange life this is.
—Letters from Storyville,April 1911
Few names conjure thoughts of literature or art more than “Ophelia.”
The tragic heroine of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, depending one’s
perspective, symbolizes everything from a women powerless to control
her destiny to a woman able to usurp power from those closest to
The book of poetry, Bellocq’s Ophelia, by Natasha
Trethewey, assistant professor of creative writing, is the latest
work to utilize the very flexible name to tell a story.
Trethewey’s Ophelia was a white-skinned black woman who worked
in a New Orleans brothel in the early 1900s. She was the subject
of a photograph that appeared in the book Storyville Portraits
by E.J. Bellocq, a pictorial collection of turn-of-the-century New
Orleans prostitutes. No more is known about Ophelia, not even her
All that can be interpreted is the photograph, which adorns the
cover of Trethewey’s book. Ophelia sits, eyes turned away
from the camera, hands in her lap, her back so perpendicular to
her chair that it must’ve been incredibly uncomfortable. Her
dark hair is tied back in bun. Her stylish gown is adorned with
fur. Her race isn’t clear.
“I was interested in the fact that no one knew who these women
were,” Trethewey said. “We know that Bellocq took pictures,
but they were anonymous subjects. I’ve always been interested
in those kinds of untold stories, or the gaps between the stories
we are told.”
I try to pose as I think he would like—shy
at first, then bolder. I’m not so foolish
that I don’t know this photograph we make
will bear the stamp of his name, not mine.
—Storyville Diary, Bellocq, April 1911
Released earlier this year, Bellocq’s Ophelia, is
Trethewey’s second book of poetry. The first, 2000’s
Domestic Work, earned her several awards, including the
Lillian Smith Book Award from the Southern Regional Council.
Despite being a young writer with a well-received first book, Trethewey
did not feel pressure to follow it up. Part of the reason is because
several of Ophelia’s poems predate Domestic Work’s publication.
The title poem, in fact, was first published in 1998.
“But I have friends who have written first books, then they
went into a freeze,” she said. “They were paralyzed
for a year before they could start writing again.”
So, once Trethewey finished Domestic Work she immediately
began writing Bellocq’s Ophelia. By the time her first book
hit the shelves, a good deal of the second was complete.
Bellocq’s Ophelia is a slim, subtle volume—29
poems spread over 48 pages. The majority of the blank verse is written
in the form of letters or diary entries. While Ophelia is a prostitute,
she demurely—and with quite a bit of propriety—does
not detail the specifics of her work.
She is educated, only going to the brothel as a last resort because
she had run out of money. At times, for better or worse, she is
comfortable with her life:
please do not think
I am the wayward girl
you describe. I alone
have made this choice.
Save what I pay for board,
what I earn is mine. Now
my labor is my own.
—Letters from Storyville,January 1911
Other times, as in this diary entry reciting the words of the madam
of the brothel, the breakdown shows:
Countess writes my description for the book—
“Violet,” a fair-skinned beauty, recites
poetry and soliloquies; nightly
she performs her tableau vivant, becomes
a living statue, and object of art—
and I fade again into someone I’m not.
—Storyville Diary, Blue Book, June 1911
At the time of her birth in Gulfport, Miss., in 1966, Trethewey’s
parents were breaking the law. Men and women of different races
in Mississippi could not be married. On her birth certificate, the
race of Trethewey’s mother is listed as “Colored”;
that of her white, Nova Scotia-born father is “Canadian.”
“Something is left out of the official record that way,”
Trethewey said. “The irony isn’t lost on me. Even in
documenting myself as a person there is a little friction.”
… do I deceive
anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown
as your dear face, they’d know I’m not quite
what I pretend to be.
—Letter Home, New Orleans, November 1910
Trethewey’s parents divorced before she started grade school.
She moved with her mother to Decatur. She would spend the summers
with her maternal grandmother in Mississippi and her father, who,
at the time, was in New Orleans working on his Ph.D. at Tulane University.
It was during the summer when her love for the Gulf coast of Louisiana
and Mississippi became ingrained in her. “We’d go to
dinner at these wonderful New Orleans restaurants,” said Trethewey,
whose voice completely lacks the accent that might be expected from
someone whose formative years were spent in deep south.
“Then we would go back to someone’s house, sit on the
porch under the ceiling fan, and they would be talking about something
that sounded so intellectual and wonderful,” she continued.
“I thought, ‘This is the life I want to have—reading,
writing and thinking all day, and talking with interesting people.’”
Poetry runs in Trethewey’s family. Her father, Eric, is an
English professor at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. Her stepmother,
Katherine Soniat, is a poet and English professor (at Virginia Tech),
as well. Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Grimmette, a social
worker, tragically was murdered in 1985 by her second husband, whom
she had recently divorced.
Trethewey earned her MA in English and creative writing at Hollins,
where she was taught by her father. He would sit at one end of the
table and she would occupy the other. Trethewey’s year at
Hollins, 1990–91, in fact, was a complete family affair. Soniat
was spending the year at Hollins and taught her stepdaughter, too.
“They were the first people to look at my poems prior to me
going to graduate school,” said Trethewey, who earned an English
bachelor’s degree at the University of Georgia in 1989 (her
most recent degree was an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts
in 1995). She worked in Augusta for a year and a half as a food
stamp case worker before entering Hollins.
“The first time they read them was after having dinner one
night,” she continued. “I showed them a poem, and it
was horrible. The worst poem imaginable—trite, sentimental,
cliched—and they ripped it to shreds. I just burst into tears,
saying I would never write another poem.”
Clearly, the experience wasn’t overly traumatizing. Trethewey
currently is at work on her third book, tentatively titled Native
Guard. It explores the Louisiana Native Guards, a regiment of African
American troops during the Civil War who were responsible for guarding
Confederate prisoners off the Gulf coast.
Some of her inspiration is derived from letters that were written
home by the prisoners. In some cases the literate prisoners wrote
notes for those who didn’t know how.
“It made me realize that there is something about the nature
of authority in recording and documenting stories, especially when
you have the power to write something down,” Trethewey said.
“You have the power to shape things—what gets remembered
I’ve learned the camera well—the danger
of it, the half-truths it can tell, but also
the way it fastens us to our pasts, makes grand
the unadorned moment.
—Letters from Storyville, December 1911