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October 7, 2002

Trethewey's Ophelia

By Eric Rangus

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 her.

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 real name.

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 in history.”

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