Snapshots of Humanity


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Forgotten History in Natasha Trethewey's "Domestic Work"

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Snapshots of Humanity

  1. 1. Snapshots of HumanityForgotten History in Natasha Trethewey‟s Domestic Work Written by Tasha Thompson May 2011
  2. 2. In Natasha Trethewey‟s first award-winning book, Domestic Work, she focuses ona theme that is present throughout her work but most strongly in this book. She writesabout photographs of life, moments of indecision, focusing on the story within each ofus. Through these stories to which all can relate to some extent, she encourages anunderlying theme of social justice based on the idea of shared humanity. Quite theformalist, Trethewey sticks to very simple forms in this book, occasionally usingcouplets or basic rhyme schemes. She does this to illustrate the fact that she isdiscussing the basic nature of the subject of her poems, the underlying concept that allof these people have something in common – they are all very human. But what does itmean to be human? According to her poetry, it means reflection, embarrassment,happiness in the little things, struggles, loving the wrong people too much and the rightpeople not enough, and finally, relying on sometimes illogical moments or dreams toget you through the day. She has created a scrapbook of instances from multiple lives,painting a vivid picture of humanity through her imagery, voice and sense of sound. In an interview with Charles Henry Rowell, Trethewey said about her poetry: I think Ive been concerned with what I have noticed to be the erasures of history for a very long time. Those stories often left to silence or oblivion, the gaps within the stories that we are told, both in the larger public historical records and in our family histories as well, the stories within families that people dont talk about, the things that are kept hushed. And so Ive always been interested in those contentions between public and
  3. 3. cultural memory, larger history and private or family memory and stories. And so I do seek to restore or to recover those subjugated narratives. (“Inscriptive Restorations” 1022)In light of this notion, I will explore the techniques Trethewey uses to bring thesesubjugated narratives back to life for the reader and emphasize their importance. I willalso investigate the concept of social justice in her poetry. Trethewey is fascinated with moments in time. Nine of the poems in this bookare dated specifically in the title or epigraph, more in the body of the poem, and a feware even based off of specific photographs. This includes the first poem in the book,“Gesture of a Woman in Process.” Although not dated in the title, the poem is given anepigraph that simply states that it was based on a photograph from 1902. The languagein this poem is fairly simple with extremely short lines, reflecting the common,everyday nature of the subject of the photograph, the “dailiness” as she puts it. Throughout, Trethewey plays with sound and interesting word choice, dailinessbeing a key example. Surrounding dailiness are the words “linens” and “clotheslines,”leaving the assonance in the ears and lines in the eye. There‟s even slight alliteration in afew places, such as “pauses for the picture” (3). All of this seems to be unconscious throughout the poem, however. The focus ison this simple yet beautiful moment in the life of these two women, one too caught upin the busyness of her day to stop for the photograph. The last few lines describe her in
  4. 4. a way that reflects on nearly all of the poems throughout the book: “Even now, herhands circling,/the white blur of her apron/still in motion.” Essentially all of thesepoems describe lives “still in motion.” Everything is a snapshot without a definite end,just a brief moment in the time of these narrators‟ lives. She does not limit these snapshots to experiences that relate directly to her life,either. Instead, she is interested and writes about moments out of many walks of life. Inonly the first introductory section of three poems, she describes two women asdiscussed above, a group of male workers gathered at a club, two black men collectingflowers, a single man, and a group of eight women. These are all explicitly based onphotographs of these various people‟s lives. In fact, the scope of this book begins wide, encompassing all walks of human life,and narrows throughout to relate to Trethewey‟s own experiences. As she says in theinterview, “the collection moves from historical figures in photographs - people I dontknow - to the life of my maternal grandmother within a particular historical moment, toan exploration of the immediate family history” (“Inscriptive Restorations” 1027). Assuch, most of the earlier poems are dated and contain a setting in the title, whereas thelater poems in the book are much more personal. She includes high detail in many of her poems, and it has a profound effect onher poetry. In “At the Owl Club, North Gulfport, Mississippi, 1950,” her focus on theindividual items or pieces of the picture is very striking. For example, “This is where hiswork is:/The New Orleans tailored suits,/shining keys, polished wood/and mirrors of
  5. 5. the bar./A white Cadillac out front./Money in his pocket, a good cigar” (4). This focuson the little things, the pieces that make up this man‟s life really puts personality and astrong voice into this poem. Bits of his life, and later in the poem, of all the men‟s lives,are given to us for inspection and so that we can form a mental image and relate. Like when describing the man, her ability to shift voices between narrators isfascinating. In the second part of “Three Photographs” labeled “Cabbage Vendor,” sheadopts an accent throughout the poem which allows the reader to truly hear thenarrator, the man in the photograph, and experience the poem on an entirely morepersonal level than would be possible otherwise. There are not a lot of apostrophes orslang words, as one might expect – she simply changes the order and form of thewords, especially verbs. For example, it begins, “Natural, he say./What he want fromme?/Say he gone look through that hole --/his spirit box--/and watch me sell mycabbages/to make a picture hold/this moment, forever./Nothing natural last/forever”(7). This enables the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the man himself. One technique that Trethewey uses throughout her poems to assist the reader inunderstanding the characters and scenarios in her work is that of dialogue, usuallyoccurring between the character and him or herself. This appears in “Domestic Work,1937,” “Speculation, 1939,” “Signs, Oakvale Mississippi, 1941,” and “Expectant,” just toname a few. In fact, it appears in varying degrees in nearly all of her poems. “Domestic Work, 1937” is obviously the title poem of the book, and is veryrefreshing. It‟s a picture of the routine of this woman who is employed as a
  6. 6. housecleaner and still finds beauty in performing these chores. The reader is privy toher thoughts, listening as she revels in her alone time, the part of the week she looksforward to the most. Cleaning is symbolic of new beginnings, clear-headedness andopportunity. This is quite prevalent throughout. As the narrator says, “Cleanliness is nextto godliness,” (13). Slowly but surely she is cleaning her past up and becomingsomething new. Trethewey says of the theme of domestic work: …that is what I intended with the title Domestic Work, not domestic work as the work of cleaning someones house, although that is certainly part of the book as well, but the everyday work that we do as human beings to live with or without people that weve lost, the work of memory and forgetting, and of self-discovery – not simply the work of earning a living and managing our households, but that larger, daily, domestic work that all of us do. (“Inscriptive Restorations” 1026)This is certainly present throughout and serves as one of the main facets of humanitythat she emphasizes, one of the ways in which we are all very similar. This is one of thecommon threads of humanness we all share. One of the ways she illustrates these is through a variation of techniques. We areall different, but all similar, and so are her poems. Each poem stands on its own, eachemploying different forms and different techniques. Yet, there are some strong
  7. 7. similarities in this book; she tends to use short to medium line length, dialogue andalways some sort of simple form. The differences make it exciting, like the differences inpeople make us interesting. She plays with a variety of different techniques and themesthroughout each of her pieces. In “At the Station,” she uses color and the theme of movement, one that isstrongly prevalent throughout the book. She begins the poem with an epigraph of twolines from a blues song by Robert Johnson entitled “Love in Vain.” The two lines are,“The blue light was my blues,/and the red light was my mind” (qtd. in Trethewey“Domestic Work” 19). The first half deals with movement. Every line contains itsomehow; nothing is still. The two presumed former lovers are separating, the manturning, moving away, and growing smaller. The light is dimming, moving out ofreach. The train is pulling away from the station. The woman is sitting, but she‟s sittingon a moving train, watching the world pass by. The line describing this is brilliant: “Thewoman sits/facing where she‟s been” (19). She is facing her past while running from it,dealing with it one last time. Then, suddenly, there is intense imagery, the way that it only really appears inour own memories. Images mixed with feelings, small details remembered sharply.However, even in this section of the poem the theme of movement is continued, if inunusual ways. The scent spills, there is dripping green. Leaves are swollen. Then, a manis motioning “nothing,” effectively bringing the theme of movement and the poem to aclose. These last few lines tie directly back into the epigraph as well: “Blue shade”
  8. 8. recalls the first line, about blue light and blues, and then the last line of the poem is,“His mind on fire,” which reflects the second line of the epigraph with the firesymbolizing the red light. Her formalism is also reflected in this poem, with her use of tercets and an abarhyme scheme. This form helps give the piece a flowing rhythm. Through this form,combined with the strong imagery and theme of movement, Trethewey connects thismoment in these two people‟s lives to something to which the reader can understandand relate. She illustrates a moment of common humanity, the point of leaving a pieceof the past behind, yet remembering and facing it all as one does so. The first half of the book is dedicated mainly to people whom Trethewey has noapparent relationship with – they simply represent different points on the spectrum ofhumanity. Of these types of poems especially, Trethewey states in an interview: I want to create a public record of people who are often excluded from the public record. I want to inscribe their stories into the larger American story. I want readers who might be unfamiliar with these people, their lives, and their particular circumstances to begin to know something about them, to see in the people that I write about some measure of them, and to, I think, enlarge the community of humanity. (Trethewey “Inscriptive Restorations” 1025)
  9. 9. All of us have these stories, these hidden pieces of history. This is part of what makesher poetry so accessible. She focuses on humanity. Through doing so, race, relationship,and even gender issues are sometimes reflected as part of the struggles that people face.Rarely controversial or overwhelmingly opinionated, she manages to address difficultissues in a very common-sense manner. Throughout her work, Trethewey is influenced by her strong opinions regardingsocial justice. In a lecture given at Emory University, Trethewey states: “It would havebeen impossible then, as it is now, to say, „I am going to sit down and write a poemabout social justice,‟ though I see now how the hope for and commitment to it pervadesevery word I write. It is the lens through which I see the world” (Trethewey “Why IWrite”). The way in which she depicts these characters is one of the ways sheencourages social justice. The key to true social justice is the ability to relate to one another and recognizethe sameness of people in general. Once the populous is able to recognize the fact thatthose around them, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any otherfactor, are in fact at the core no different from anyone else, there will no longer bediscrimination or other violations of social justice. One of the most effective ways toreach this is by building bridges between individuals and between cultures, andTrethewey does this in her poems, telling stories from lives that could be very differentfrom that of the reader yet would resonate with anyone. The response she hopes to gainfrom her reader is indeed successful. One can hardly walk away from these poems
  10. 10. without feeling as if one has gained a deeper understanding of human nature as awhole and all of the similarities which make us all members of this thing we callhumanity. Moving into the second half of the book, Trethewey takes a slightly differenttone. These poems are much more personal, discussing family and Trethewey‟s past. Asshe explores in particular the relationship with her mother, she becomes slightlyvulnerable and opens up to the reader. Through this, she gives a very personal look ather experiences with social justice and the human condition. In the third section of her book, Trethewey begins to investigate the relationshipsin her family. The first of these poems is entitled “Early Evening, Frankfort, Kentucky.”Set in 1965, the poem occurs before Trethewey is born, while her mother is stillpregnant with her. This piece is a celebration of the young, apparently effortless love ofher parents. It‟s a very romantic picture: a young couple going for a walk, the womanobviously pregnant and glowing, the man carrying a slim, leather-bound volume ofpoetry to read to her. The imagery that Trethewey uses is again highlighted in this poem. The colorblue, associated with calm happiness, is used both to describe her mother‟s dress andthe color of the hills, aiding in the mood of the poem and the state of the oneness withthe world that her mother inhabits at this time. This is also described in the ending ofthe poem, as her mother lies down among clover and grass, in the “dead center of herlife” (27). She is at the peak of everything in this moment, a perfect day. In addition, a
  11. 11. beautiful description that Trethewey incorporates is that of her mother‟s laughter“rippling down into [her] blood” (27). This illustrates the oneness that Tretheweyshares with her mother, a relationship quite complicated but at the heart extremelydeep and meaningful. Notice that in this poem, Trethewey is still incorporating the same technique asearlier, taking snapshots of a life forgotten and writing it down in an art form. She isrecording that history that so often gets lost – a perfect day where nothing incrediblyimportant happens, but is still somehow more important than most days in a person‟slife. However, these ideal moments tend to reside in our own private memories and arenot shared, because there is apparently nothing momentous to say about them, otherthan the fact that those days are the ones for which and during which we truly live. The poem “Flounder” is one in which she discusses social justice issues moredirectly. She uses dialogue well in the poem, showing how her young mind processeswhat Aunt Sugar is teaching her. The rhyme scheme is a somewhat interesting abcb inthis poem, giving it a certain flow and rhythm. Initially this poem seems like most of theothers, simply a snapshot from a life, but the fish makes it more interesting. Her aunttells her that she has caught a flounder, and you can tell “…’cause one of its sides is black.The other side is white” (37). Then the young narrator watched it flip back and forth:black, white, black, white. This would certainly speak to Trethewey, since she is mixedrace as well. She must have related to the fish. Flounders typically hide their white side,
  12. 12. and at this point in her life, she must have been trying to decide which part to hide, orwhich part to celebrate, depending on how one looks at it. This poem, “White Lies,” and “History Lesson” deal more blatantly with colorthan most of the others throughout the book, the latter two to much more of an extent.The key passage from “White Lies” is a three-line recollection of a moment in class:“…like the time a white girl said/(squeezing my hand), Now/we have three of us in thisclass,” (37). This illustrates Trethewey‟s personal struggles with her place in society,something that heavily influenced her social justice lens. She obviously did not fitperfectly into either side and as such could not have seen the necessity of breakingsociety down into these strict definitions of black or white. She was both. “History Lesson” begins the last section of the book. In it, she is describing aphotograph, something she does often. This photograph is taken by her grandmother ofher at four years old standing on a beach that had, up until two years previous to thephotograph, been off-limits for blacks. The poem reminisces, telling us that when hergrandmother was growing up, there was a similar photo of her on the same beach buton a narrow strip of it labeled “colored” (45) – the only place her grandmother wasallowed to go. Again in this piece, Trethewey‟s ability with imagery and word choice isstunning. She brings us to the beach from the very beginning, describing her toescurling into the wet sand and the sun cutting the rippling Gulf (45). Later, the minnowsglint like switchblades, playing off the cutting sun. One can easily feel the wet sand, the
  13. 13. hot sun, and see the little minnows. She instantly brings the reader in, makes the poemextremely accessible. The poem that most closely relates to the title poem also appears in the lastsection. It‟s called “Housekeeping.” The way these poems are in conversation with eachother is very interesting. “Domestic Work, 1937” discusses housework as both a burdenand a privilege, a way to make a living as well as a way to clean one‟s soul.“Housekeeping,” however, treats housework as something never-ending which mustbe done. It‟s more of a routine, a quiet bonding time for mother and daughter. All butone sentence is spoken from the perspective of “we,” illustrating the team that theybecome in accomplishing these apparently mundane activities. The book ends with a poem entitled “Limen.” This poem describes listening tothe work of a woodpecker, a quiet, reflective moment. Her mother is briefly referencedas a memory, a background to her everyday life. This poem truly brings the book to aclose on a very personal, focused, and calm note. It‟s also hopeful. The woodpecker isdescribed as looking for “some other gift the tree might hold,” (58). If he works hardenough, perhaps he‟ll find it. If we work hard enough, perhaps we can find the gift inside each of us in theform of shared memories and experiences, a common thread of humanity throughoutall of us. Reflected in our domestic work of chores to daily tasks of forgetting pain andliving our lives, our oneness with each other should be easily discovered.
  14. 14. In Domestic Work, Trethewey explores concepts of social justice through the useof form, imagery, and voice. She takes snapshots with words of significant moments inlives of seemingly insignificant people and in the lives of her and her family, and sharesthem in an effort to explain the equality of everyone. Her extremely accessible poemsspeak to readers of all backgrounds, and her poignant word choice leaves her messagesringing in our minds.
  15. 15. Works CitedTrethewey, Natasha D. Domestic Work: Poems. Ed. Rita Dove Saint Paul, Minn: Graywolf Press, 2000. Print.Trethewey, Natasha. “Why I Write: Natasha Trethewey on Poetry, History and Social Justice.” Distinguished Faculty Lecture. Emory University. Atlanta, GA. 3 Feb. 2010. Lecture. <>Rowell, Charles H, and Natasha Trethewey. "Inscriptive Restorations: an Interview with Natasha Trethewey." Callaloo. 27.4 (2004): 1022-1034. Print.