WHEN U.S. POET Laureate Natasha Trethewey visited my day job at historically black Kentucky State University, she cleared up a couple of things about the honors and duties of her position. First she noted that, unlike her British counterpart, she does not receive a free cask of wine as part of her payment. But that’s okay, she says, because, unlike laureates of old, she also does not have to compose made-to-order poems to the glory of The State. The State should also be relieved at that, because Trethewey’s poetry, while obsessed with history and written in a plain-spoken and accessible style, also habitually exposes profoundly unsettling truths about us and our past, especially regarding race.
From her first book, Domestic Work, focused on the lives of working-class African Americans in the South, to her most recent, Thrall, which deals with images of interracial relationships from the 17th century to the present, Trethewey has focused her keen verbal gifts on the most sensitive nerve in American life. Trethewey comes by these obsessions naturally. She is the daughter of a white man, Eric Trethewey, himself a poet of some renown, and a black woman, Gwendolyn Turnbough, who was murdered when Trethewey was in college. Trethewey was born and grew up as a mixed-race child on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the late 1960s and ’70s.