Emory Report
April 24, 2006
Volume 58, Number 28


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April 24 , 2006
Native Guard more than just a book for Trethewey

BY Michael Terrazas

As Hurricane Katrina approached the coast of Mississippi, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough lay in a nondescript grave, virtually unmarked, in Gulfport. Murdered in 1985 by her second husband, Turnbough—Gwendolyn’s maiden name, which she gave up for the name Trethewey, which she gave up for the name of her killer—had only a small bit of metal to distinguish her from those interred around her.

“It was just a spike, something you’d put in a plant to tell you it was basil,” said Turnbough’s daughter, Natasha Trethewey, associate professor of English and creative writing.

As Katrina raged, Trethewey watched on television from afar, wondering if her mother’s grave would be washed away. When she was killed, Trethewey did not have a headstone constructed. This award-winning poet could not come up with words—specifically, a name—to adorn the stone. She could not bring herself to mark her mother’s grave with the name of the man who killed her, nor could she label the grave Trethewey (this would dishonor the one good thing the fatal marriage had produced: a half-brother for Natasha).

“I felt shamed,” Trethewey said, acknowledging the idea of using Gwendolyn’s maiden name never occurred to her. “Guilty, neglectful. Like I was not a good daughter—someone who’s at least complicit in erasing someone from the landscape.”

“Historical erasure.” It is a theme that permeates Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), the latest volume by the award-winning poet who joined Emory’s faculty in 2001. The book is filled with lost images, forgotten roads and landscapes, people whose lives and actions exist only as memories.

Native Guard is named for a Union regiment of African American soldiers mustered in late 1862 and charged with guarding Confederate prisoners. When Trethewey first began work on the book a few years ago, she thought it would focus only on these black troops and how history has left them unremembered, un-honored by the Civil War monuments that dot the South like mile markers. She even traveled to Harvard on a Bunting Fellowship to begin her research, coming to terms with the idea that Native Guard—like Trethewey’s previous book, Bellocq’s Ophelia—would be a reflection on a historical topic.

“But at the same time, I was writing these little elegies [about my mother],” she said. “They started coming out, and I’d just put them away in a drawer. I didn’t feel like they were public. They felt so close to me and such an indulgence of my own grief. I didn’t feel like I could show them to anyone else.”

But she did show them. As Trethewey began to earn recognition as a poet, journals and anthologies came calling, asking to publish her work, and she reached into her drawer and began sending out those elegies, one by one. Then she wrote a poem called “Monument,” centered around the image of ants building a mound atop her mother’s untended plot: Believe me when I say/I’ve tried not to begrudge them/ their industry, this reminder of what/I haven’t done. Even now,/the mound is a blister on my heart,/a red and humming swarm.

That’s when it happened.

“It hit me like, ‘Oh my God,’” Trethewey said. “I was doing all that research [on the Native Guard] because I was interested in historical erasure and what had been buried and forgotten—and it was her. I hadn’t done this. This was something I hadn’t done. I had been researching this buried history because it was a way around something that I just hadn’t acknowledged yet.”

Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough will get her marker this year, but in a way at least as significant, Native Guard is her headstone. The book still contains, as Trethewey originally planned, a poetic study of that black regiment who guarded the lives of those who had oppressed and enslaved them (specifically, a 10-sonnet poem from the perspective of one of the Native Guardsmen, spoken in a voice only Trethewey could have imagined).
But the book opens with 10 elegies to Trethewey’s mother: small, simple images, like time-worn photographs, of the woman whose life ended almost precisely at the age her daughter is now.

Since Katrina, Trethewey has been caring for her mother’s mother, who is now 90 and in an assisted-living home in Durham, N.C., where Trethewey has spent this year on a visiting professorship at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. In the wake of the hurricane, the Gulf Coast of Trethewey’s memories is just that: a memory. But sometime in the not-too-distant future, she will travel with her grandmother back to the place she was born and see, for the first time, what is left.

“She knows she can’t live there anymore, but she wants to see it,” Trethewey said of her grandmother. “I need to see it, too.”

Trethewey will read from and sign copies of Native Guard on Thursday, April 27, at 6 p.m. in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library. For more information, call 404-727-7620.