There is a poignancy in Natasha Trethewey’s “History Lesson” that I find irresistible – it is beautiful and evocative and sad and triumphant all at once. I think that what I appreciate the most is how she says so much – about an important relationship, about memory, about history, about our culture, and about race – by saying so little. With a disciplined economy of words and spare but evocative detail, she tells the truth, as Emily Dickinson says, but she tells it slant, in a way we can receive it, mull it over, and be transformed by it.
Born in 1966, Natasha was named Poet Laureate this past week. I think we’re in for a very good year.
I am four in this photograph, standing
on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,
my hands on the flowered hips
of a bright bikini. My toes dig in,
curl around wet sand. The sun cuts
the rippling Gulf in flashes with each
tidal rush. Minnows dart at my feet
glinting like switchblades. I am alone
except for my grandmother, other side
of the camera, telling me how to pose.
It is 1970, two years after they opened
the rest of this beach to us,
forty years since the photograph
where she stood on a narrow plot
of sand marked colored, smiling,
her hands on the flowered hips
of a cotton meal-sack dress.
From Domestic Work (2000)