Reading Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia and Native Guard Through the Lens of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida • Empty Mirror

Native Guard and Bellocq's Opheli by Natasha Trethewey

Not much has been written about Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia or Native Guard, and what has been written is mostly about the racial content of the poems. Quite a bit, however, has been written about Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and his use of studium and punctum in relation to photography, but not much has been written about how punctum can be extended into other artistic media. Trethewey in Bellocq’s Ophelia and Native Guard does extend the use of punctum not only as a poetic device, but also as way to confront the exclusive histories of America, especially when it comes to people who have been overlooked or not acknowledged. In addition, she evolves from writing about other unacknowledged identities in order to help her write about herself and her self-identified biracial experiences growing up in the South. By reading Bellocq’s Ophelia and Native Guard through the lens of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, I’ll examine Trethewey’s use of punctum to re-inscribe history with the voices of the unacknowledged and to give voice to her own biracial experiences. To accomplish that, I’lll briefly explore Barthes’s ideas on studium and punctumm> in relation to photography, then examine Trethewey’s use of punctum in a fictive history through the various ways she makes punctum arrive for the characters in Bellocq’s Ophelia and how that affects Ophelia. This paper then transitions into how Trethewey in Native Guard expands the uses of punctum from the historical and biographical to personal realism.

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Between the release of Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia in 2002 and Native Guard in 2006, Trethewey responded to a question in an interview with Charles Henry Rowell about “restoration and inscription” in Bellocq’s Ophelia. Part of Trethewey’s response addressed photography and the “‘punctums’ that Roland Barthes talks about in his text – “those little things within a photograph that often will draw you out of the immediate action of the photograph to contemplate all that is behind it or outside it” (1028). Though a brief aside, this comment proves to be a significant one when considering Trethewey’s use of history in her poetry. Trethewey in Bellocq’s Ophelia and Native Guard broadens the use of punctum to apply to history and poetry, as she evolves from writing fictive historical poems, to historically based poems, to poems of her own personal experience and personal history. In doing so, her poetry gives voice to unrepresented figures who have been hidden or erased from the traditional and exclusive histories we are accustomed to. Moreover, her poetry presents a personal realism that addresses her self-identified biracial experiences growing up in the South.

In Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes wants to create “a History of Looking” (12), especially the history of looking through photography, which transforms “subject into object” (13). He wants “to learn at all costs what Photography was ‘in itself,’ by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images” (3). To accomplish this, he explores what photography is and does by way of analyzing and understanding the “Operator” (photographer), the “Spectator” (the person viewing the photograph), the target or referent (“the person or thing being photographed” (9)), and the “Spectrum” (or “any eidolon emitted by the object” (9)). The most important elements for Barthes that help guide him in his examination of those facets of photography are his theory of the studium and punctum.

The first element that Barthes treats in Camera Lucida is the notion of “studium,” or the readily apprehensible intention of the photography that is understood by everyone, such as “journalistic photographs” (41) found in newspapers or “pornographic photograph[s]” (41). As a result, the meaning or point of the photograph can be quickly taken in by a mere glimpse. The viewer is able to “culturally [. . .] participate in the figures [of the photograph], the faces, the gestures, the actions” (26), and can do so with little thought or engagement with the photograph, and, according to Barthes, the viewer can do this because the “studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste” (27). In Barthes’ estimation, these photographs do not cause harm. These images do not alter the spectator or stimulate the spectator to engage with the photograph. In essence, the studium, or a photograph that is only studium, is unartistic and is “coded” for quick comprehension. These types of photography are “‘unary,’ hence banal” (Fried 542). More importantly, the studium is closely aligned with the “photographer’s intentions” (Barthes 27). One could also think of studium as the surface-level meaning of a photograph or a photograph that only has one level of meaning, such as a parent’s snapshot of their child. However, according to Barthes, even that snapshot, in certain contexts, can have more than just surface-level meaning if it has punctum.

The second important element of a photograph for Barthes is punctum, though he emphasizes that it is not found in every photograph, or it is only there latently or potentially. Nonetheless, when it is there, when it is found, when it becomes realized or kinetic, the punctum is always subjective. That is, punctum is a detail in a photograph “that rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces” (26) the spectator uniquely. The punctum is any detail that “disturbs the studium” (27) and that creates meaning for the spectator. This detail is not always the same for every spectator, and thus is subjective. In addition, the punctum can never be planned by the photographer (operator). It is what Michael Fried, in “Barthes’s punctum,” calls “antitheatrical,” because it cannot be staged. According to Fried, “the punctum [. . .] is known only in and through a particular viewer’s subjective experience (the punctum has no existence apart from that experience)” (573). The punctum then enables the spectator to create meaning in and from the photograph.

Barthes also wanted to explore photography “as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think” (Barthes 21). The wound arises from the detail that strikes the spectator. The wound in the studium, the place where the punctum “shoots out” (26), in turn wounds the spectator to a new apprehension of himself or herself, or it pricks the spectator to find meaning in the photograph or history, for as Barthes claims, “Photography is subversive [. . .] when it is pensive, when it thinks” (38). The wound (the punctum) makes the spectator want to engage with the image, and it transforms the spectator into an object of reflection and/or causes a trauma that the spectator must confront about him or herself. This type of punctive wound will reveal itself in Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard in her poetic rendering of the physical abuse that Trethewey’s mother suffered, in the dehumanization of “the first officially sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army” (Trethewey, Native Guard 47), and in Trethewey’s traumatic experiences “growing up black and biracial in Mississippi and Georgia” (Trethewey, “Why I Write” 4).
As mentioned, punctum can also be latent. In other words, time also functions as punctum, because, as Fried points out, “the sense of something being past, being historical, cannot be perceived by the photographer or indeed anyone else in the present. [. . . punctum] becomes visible in it [the photograph] only after the fact [. . .] to deliver the prick” (560), the puncture, the punctuation, or the wound to the studium. As Barthes clarifies, “This punctum [. . .] is vividly legible in historical photographs: there is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die” (Barthes 96). In other words, when a spectator views a picture from a time preceding their existence, the spectator sees a person who is alive but knows that the person in the photograph will die, and this paradox is a type of punctum, too. Or as Barthes says:

Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History, its division. History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it – and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it. As a living soul, I am the very contrary of History, I am what belies it, destroys it for the sake of my own history. (65)

This historical punctum will become significant in understanding the historical elements of Native Guard, Trethewey’s attempt to understand what she calls her “mixed-race experience growing up in the Deep South” (Rowell 1027). Additionally, the varieties of punctum and studium that Barthes speaks to in Camera Lucida will help facilitate a fuller engagement with Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia.

One of Trethewey’s early written attempts to explore her biracial experiences in the South occurs in Bellocq’s Ophelia. In this collection of poems, Trethewey uses the fictional character Ophelia, who is a biracial woman (“a very white-skinned black woman” (6)) who went to New Orleans looking for legitimate employment in the early 1900s. Instead, she wound up employed in a brothel with quadroon and octoroon prostitutes. The impetus for using Ophelia as mask for Trethewey to examine living as a biracial woman in the South is seen in the opening poem “Bellocq’s Ophelia.” This poem is not part of the narrative of Ophelia in New Orleans. Instead, it acts an introduction to the fictional narrative of Ophelia, and more importantly, it is about Trethewey’s experience with two different representations of Ophelia’s – one is the subject of Sir John Everett “Millais’s painting” (1) (from the 1850s) and the other is “[E. J.] Bellocq’s photograph” of a New Orleans prostitute (12). Millais’s painting of Shakespeare’s Ophelia is an example of studium, as the painting is coded for representing or rendering Shakespeare’s Ophelia’s dying scene. It’s ready for quick comprehension of Ophelia’s last thoughts, “Take me” (11). The painter’s intentions are readily understood, and as a result, this colorfully vivid painting does not move Trethewey as much as Bellocq’s black and white photograph of Ophelia does. After comparing the studium in the painting and photograph in stanzas one and two, the third stanza introduces the photograph’s punctum, which deeply affected Trethewey:

But in her face, a dare.
Staring into the camera, she seems to pull
all movement from her slender limbs
and hold it in her heavy-lidded eyes.
Her body limp as dead Ophelia’s,
her lips poised open, to speak. (23-28)

Unlike Millais’s painting where Trethewey is quick to comprehend Ophelia’s last thoughts (“Take me”), Bellocq’s Ophelia is “poised [. . .] to speak,” but Trethewey doesn’t know what this Ophelia will speak. The need to know, the need to think, the need to be pensive is the result of the photograph’s punctum piercing Trethewey and inducing her to commence her fictionalized historical account of Ophelia. Trethewey will explore the mystery behind Ophelia’s unspoken words.

In the first poem about Ophelia, “Letter Home,” the reader encounters the conflicted nature that Ophelia has as a mixed-race woman. This is apparent in the lines, “I walk these streets / a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes / of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine, / a negress again” (18-21). These lines portray Ophelia’s first experiences in New Orleans, where she feels good about herself as a white woman, but as soon as someone looks at her, she becomes self-conscious and feels ashamed of her black identity. Her experiences and understanding of herself will only become more complicated the longer she lives in New Orleans. Part of this complication will arise from how other people (or spectators) view her (as just shown) and what punctum they see in or on Ophelia that focuses how they perceive and interact with her.

For Barthes, punctum is subjective. What pierces the studium will vary from spectator to spectator. For Trethewey the punctum is also subjective, but it is also contextual. As Malin Pereria points out in “Re-Reading Trethewey Through Mixed Race Studies,” the experiences of biracial people are “context-dependent and therefore subject to change depending on the viewer and the situation, and not always corresponding to the identity inside” (140). For instance, in the above example, Ophelia was feeling secure in her identity until other people saw her “brown” skin (Trethewey, “Letter Home” 16), and she, as a result, lowered her eyes as a submissive act to indicate her inferiority as a mixed-race woman in a racist society. That submissiveness results from the context of a public viewing lens, but there are other contexts that refocus the lens on how Ophelia is viewed: as a prostitute, a person “inspected for signs of her blackness” (Malin 141), or treated as an “object of art” (“Trethwey, “Blue Book” 13).

One of the first lessons Ophelia receives is from one of the ladies who runs a brothel, who, essentially, instructs Ophelia about the act of posing. She suggests to Ophelia that because she is a prostitute in a brothel, Ophelia must create the context in which she is to be viewed by potential customers. In essence, Ophelia is told to become something akin to Barthes’ operator (or photographer) as well as the referent (or the subject that is turned into object) of a photograph, and the male customers are her spectators. This lesson is given in “Countess P–’s Advice for New Girls,” where Countess P tells Ophelia to pose as if sitting “for a painting” (9), but that she must also position herself in such a way as to “[c]atch light // in the hollow of your throat; let the shadow dwell / in your navel and beneath the curve / of your breasts” (9-12). In other words, Ophelia must provide the cultural context that is coded for easy consumption, which means she must create a presence (or studium) so that a customer will be able to easily read her as a desirable object. For example, in “Letters from Storyville: August 1911,” Ophelia must become the black woman “with white skin, exotic curiosities” (7), or she must provide the evidence of her blackness, such as “telltale / half-moons in our fingernails, / a bluish tint beneath the skin” (14-16). In this posing or posturing, she as operator creates a context (“spectacle and fetish” (“Letters from Storyville: “March 1911” 2)) for the customer to hopefully discover punctum or “find the hint / that would betray me [Ophelia], make me worth / the fee” (“Letters from Storyville: August 1911” 18-20) as an object for sexual consumption. She must be suggestively coded studium.

What is more important than creating this studium and hoping for a punctum to be discovered – for the operator can only create studium and cannot create punctum (which only the spectator or customer can create or find) – is for Ophelia to learn how “to be watched” (“Countess P–’s Advice for New Girls” 6) and to “[b]ecome what you [Ophelia] must” be (20). In other words, Ophelia must learn to live in a double paradox. The first paradox is that she must act as an operator to transform her subject self into an object of desire, and she needs to reveal, as Barthes says, “what was so well hidden that the actor himself [in this case Ophelia] was unaware or unconscious of it” (32). She must actively discover in herself what she doesn’t know about herself and then present it objectively and desirably. She needs to manipulate herself into studium with potential punctum, which leads to the second paradox.

The second paradox is that she must learn to act as a desirable object (a simulacrum of herself) for others while maintaining her subjecthood; and this means that she must, at least while in the brothel, become a fetishized object for the white male customer – she must become the “exotic curiosities,” “the African Violet for the promise / of that wild continent beneath / my [Ophelia’s] white skin” (“Letters from Storyville: December 1910” 55-57) – but she must also look “away from” her “reflection – / small and distorted – in his [customer’s] lens” (24) and become who she is as a young woman in the South. She must be object and subject at the same time.

One way to do this is to pose for the camera lens of a photographer, or to find an operator who can reveal what is unconsciously hidden within her. Thus, Ophelia poses for the photographer Bellocq. While she has removed the paradox of simultaneously performing as operator and subject, she is still transformed from subject to object. That is, she is the referent that will become objectified in a photograph. She will still be transformed into studium. However, this studium will not have the context of sexual desire, or at least the context to encourage a transfer of money for sex. Instead, this new context will be art. She will be an “object of art.” While the end goal of the posing for a photograph is different from posing for a customer in the brothel, she still needs to perform a Barthes-like pose, which for Barthes means, “In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art” (Barthes 13). While she no longer has to act as operator, she still has to pose or perform, but now she has to exhibit an additional simulation of herself – she has to pose for the photographer, or as she says in “Storyville Diary: Bellocq,” “I try to pose as I think he would like” (11) (where “I” is Ophelia and “he” is Bellocq and his camera). What is interesting in this photographic scenario is that the language suggests she is trying to create a pose to please the operator, and she attempts to please him in almost a similar manner as she did when trying to please the spectator (customer) in the brothel. In neither case, however, does she try to please herself. She hopes the photograph of her – the art object of her – will “show me [Ophelia] who I am” (“Letters from Storyville: March 1911” 32).

In the end, Ophelia doesn’t truly discover who is she is. Instead, she just learns to adapt to environments through her various poses. Part of this may be because as a prostitute or as an art object, she ends up as the property of another man. As prostitute, it is easy to see how she becomes the temporary property of another man, but as an art object, it might be less obvious, at least until Ophelia makes it clear at the end of the unrhymed sonnet “Storyville Diary: Bellocq”: “this photograph we make / will bear the stamp of his name, not mine” (13-14). It’s as if she has been inscribed or branded with the photographer’s name. His identity and his framing of her create who she is. And while she might learn a little bit about herself, as mentioned above, she learns only how another man frames her to be seen. In this case, the photograph’s punctum might not be in the photograph, but in the inscription: “Bellocq.” She is not Ophelia’s Ophelia. As the title of the book suggests, she is Bellocq’s Ophelia. And this is the wound, this is the punctum that opens in or exposes in Ophelia. And this wound, as Mariana Ortega points out in “Wounds of Self: Experience, Word, Image, and Identity,” is a:

different kind of wound, one that in my view informs our words, our projects to seek, to produce, and to maintain our ways of knowing of the world and of ourselves – we women of color who have been and continue to be silenced by flesh and blood bodies as well as by bodies of ideas that intentionally or unintentionally obscure, undermine, assault, or disappear us. This wound is the punctum. (235-6)

It is the wound that makes Ophelia realize that she is not herself, and despite her various contexts and poses she “fade[s] again into someone I’m not” (Trethewey, “Storyville Diary: Blue Book” 14).

To further complicate matters she is also Trethewey’s Ophelia. In an interview with Charles Henry Rowell, Trethewey points out that she uses Ophelia as a mask to “investigate aspects of my own mixed-race experience” (1027). In doing so, Trethewey is also able to create an Ophelia who “became her own self [Trethewey’s self] as well” (1027). Still, this “own self” is just studium created by another person. Like Bellocq the photographer, Trethewey frames Ophelia for her own artistic interests, as well as to examine her own self. The final result is that an Ophelia is created, but the book comes full circle at the end of “Storyville Diary: “Portrait #1” when Ophelia is in an arching pose with “a gesture / before speech, before the first word comes out” (13-14). This image mirrors the image at the conclusion of book’s prefatory poem, “Bellocq’s Ophelia” – “her lips posed to open, to speak” (28). What has happened as a result is that Trethewey took that image, that punctum in the opening poem and used it to examine her own life as a biracial woman. She created an Ophelia – her Ophelia – but in the world of the poetry collection, Ophelia was never able to create herself. Ophelia was always an object, and an historical one at that. In addition, Trethewey imposes a fictive history on her, and Ophelia doesn’t get to reply or have her say. Here lies the impetus for Trethewey to try and explore her own biracial “experiences growing up in the Deep South” (Rowell 1027) in Native Guard.

Before examining this, however, it must be noted that Trethewey’s new attempt at self-exploration is hinted at near the end of Bellocq’s Ophelia in “Storyville Diary: (Self) Portrait.” The first hint is in the title’s parenthetical “Self,” which suggests a double meaning: self-portrait of Ophelia and self-portrait of Trethewey. For in this poem, like in the second poem in Native Guard, “The Southern Crescent,” the speaker is on a train “leaving [. . .] home” (Trethewey, “Storyville Diary: (Self) Portrait” 6). A parallel is made between Ophelia and the “Trethewey” as speaker in the opening and closing sections of Native Guard. Even more interesting is the last one-and-one-third lines: “I looked into / a capped lens, saw only my own clear eye” (13-14). In Bellocq’s Ophelia penultimate poem, “Storyville Diary: (Self) Portrait,” it as if Trethewey is saying, “I’ve had enough of all the lenses and modes of seeing through them (whether it be the lens of Madame, the monocle of customer, the lens of Bellocq’s camera, etc.).” Trethewey is putting a cap on all the lenses. She’s blocking the spectators’ suggestive views. And because of this, she can see her “own clear eye.” She sees one true thing about herself and not what the spectators see. Or rather, she learns one true thing about herself. Trethewey, however, needs more accountable histories for her introspection as a biracial woman growing up in the South. These histories are explored in Native Guard.

To explore her experiences of growing up as a biracial woman in the South, Trethewey arranges the three sections of Native Guard – “Document,” “Monument,” and “Testament” (Rowell 1033) – to create a dialectical movement through the collection of poems. The “Document” section gives a brief biographical history of her relationship with her abused mother who was murdered (though the details of the murder are not made clear in the poems), the “Monument” section is about histories of Mississippi, especially the overlooked history of “the first officially sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army” (Trethewey, Native Guard 47), and the final section, “Testament,” is the synthesis of the biographical and historical where Trethewey examines the personal traumas of living as a biracial woman in the South.

To arrive at this understanding, she begins, as mentioned, by using history in Native Guard, which one could call another lens, similar to the lenses used by the Madame, the customer, or Bellocq in Bellocq’s Ophelia. History becomes a lens through which Trethewey can view herself. However, Trethewey is not using the lens of a fictional history, as she did with Ophelia. Nor is she using the typical history in textbooks that many of us grew up with and that celebrated white male war heroes, inventors, profiteers, and presidents. That history for Trethewey is all studium. That history is coded for general consumption and for reaffirming white men as dominant property owners, and the so-called owners of history. It’s an exclusive history. It is a history that is limited in scope, discovery, and insight. It overlooks many other heroes and contributors in the history of America. As Jee Eum Kim points out, “This imperative to remember those disowned by history, in opposition to accepting what history tells us to remember, has shaped Trethewey’s poetic career” (91). As Trethewey announces in “Why I Write,” “I write to tell a fuller version of American history, to recover stories and voices of people whose lives have been marginalized, forgotten, erased, overlooked” (6). As a result, Trethewey will do and undo history. She will inscribe the histories of the disowned into and/or onto the historical studium. She will create a palimpsest not dissimilar to the black soldier writing in the journal in Trethewey’s long poem and crown of sonnets, “Native Guard.”

The poem “Native Guard,” which appears in the “Monument” section, is a monument or memorial to the first regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army. However, this is no typical memorial. Typical memorials and monuments have a number of functions, as Andrew Palmer and Sally Minogue point out in “Memorial Poems and the Poetics of Memorializing.” In general, “[t]hrough a combination of form, symbol and inscription, they express (often ambiguously) the meaning of specific wars and their losses” (162). In other words, they are coded for easy consumption, similar to Barthes’s studium in a photograph. Some of these memorials are coded as “carriers of political ideas” (163), as a “framework for and legitimation of . . . grief” (163), an attempt “by the state to defend its waging of war by hijacking the human impulse at grief at the loss of young life” (163), as closures to wars (163), and as a place for the bereaved to “comfort each other” (164). For example, on Ship Island, off the coast of Gulf Port, Mississippi, there is a fort serving as memorial. At the entrance to the fort, as Trethewey explains, is a plaque put on display by the Daughters of the Confederacy that lists “all the names of the Confederate soldiers who were imprisoned there” (Rowell 1032). However, while inscribing names on a plaque attempts to remind the tourist, visitor, or mourner of the person or persons who died, it will often fail as a memorial for few reasons.

One reason, as Palmer and Minogue also point out, is that there are too many names “for each individual name to mean anything” (165). Another is “it is too grand a sight to recall enlisted men whose ordinariness was their defining characteristic” (165). In other words, most of these inscribed names are those of the common soldiers, and not the historically acknowledged heroes of war. As a result, those tourists or spectators that might remember a name on the plaque will be a small group of family and friends of the inscribed person. That is, of course, until the family and friends die, which is the second reason for the inscribed failure. When the family and friends die, then those inscribed names are just names with no referent, or names that lack a spectator who can acknowledge or remember the referent. The memorial and plaque not only lack punctum, but there is also no studium. Or, according to Palmer and Minogue, “[a] war memorial [. . .] is characteristically monumental and monolithic, it is harder for the punctum to occur as we view it” (169). That is until Trethewey comes upon the plaque and the memorial.

In that moment, when she realizes that there is “no mention of the black soldiers who were stationed there. [. . .] Nowhere is there any marker for the Native Guard” (Rowell 1033), there is a newly discovered punctum, a punctum of negative capability. That is to say that Trethewey becomes “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats 261), where facts and reason are the memorial and the names on the plaque and the exclusive history of white soldiers. As a result, Trethewey, like the Coleridge that Keats describes in his letter that first references “negative capability,” becomes “incapable of remaining content with half knowledge” (261). The absence of names was Trethewey’s punctum, and it pierced her to receive the other half of the knowledge – the “Mystery” of the first black regiment – and to inscribe absence into art, or poems. The absences and mystery here are not dissimilar to Ophelia’s unspoken words. Trethewey’s poems become a “writing out of that piercing” (Palmer 169) – that piercing punctum. As a result, she becomes concerned with the verisimilitude – truth and beauty – that arises from negative capability and the punctum piercing her imagination, but she is little concerned with the facts of the studium-filled history text book and its white fighting soldiers. Her poems are going to confront history by memorializing the unacknowledged and to correct history to “give it a fuller, richer understanding of our American experience” (Trethewey, “On Whitman” 52). Or as Major Jackson points out:

African American poets have made the historical poem a key component of the African American literary tradition and sought tenaciously to correct American history textbooks by writing volume after volume of poems that pull out of the shadows political and cultural figures deemed representative in the plight of black people’s struggle for respect, equality, and dignity. Some dismissively refer to such writing as “service literature,” but one cannot imagine literary works of art that so successfully make an allegory of the American struggle to fulfill a founding vision. To gauge the success of a democracy, one must revisit the narratives of the people. (5)

The history Trethewey will correct is the inscribed and “exclusive version of history [inscribed] into public memory” (Trethewey, “On Whitman” 55) on the plaque at Ship Island by the Daughters of the Confederacy, and she will also correct the history where the belief is that “The slaves were clothed, fed, / and better off under a master’s care” (Trethewey, “Southern History” 3-4). She will also confront the history of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind that is considered “a true account of how things were back then” (11). When Trethewey was younger, as she describes in the poem “Southern History,” she did nothing to challenge those historical lies. Even though she knew they were lies, she remained “Silent” (14). But now, in Native Guard, she creates the opportunity to re-inscribe history with the voices of the unacknowledged, including the first black regiment of the Union Army, her mother, as well as herself.

Returning to the black regiment Native Guard, Trethewey gives voice to those overlooked soldiers, like Whitman does in in Specimen Days creating a “monument to the common soldier” (Trethewey, “On Whitman” 52). However, unlike Whitman who only wrote about tending to black soldiers (52), she will write more about the black soldiers’ experiences, and most especially the experiences of one soldier, which one can assume, based on the “Notes” at the end of Native Guard, is Colonel Nathan W. Daniels.

Daniels, who was “born a slave” (Trethewey, “Native Guard: November 1862” 7), is now thirty-three-years old in Trethewey’s historical account, and he is educated and able to write. What he writes is his account of history, one that counters the history “inscribed upon [. . . his] back” (11) by a master’s whip and a history that is steadier and more certain than a “flawed, changeful” (13) memory. The history he shares is one that would never appear in the historical studium. He brings to light how even though the Native Guard were soldiers fighting on the Union side and who had the same end goal of freeing the slaves, the Native Guard soldiers were dehumanized by the Union soldiers because they were black. The Union soldiers called the black soldiers “supply units” (“Native Guard: December 1862” 4), their work was called “nigger work” (8), and they were even shot at by the Union soldiers (“Native Guard: April 1863”). Not only does Daniels write about those “things which must be accounted for (“Native Guard: 1865” 1), but he also shows how the soldiers in the first black regiment in the Union Army were erased. That is, Daniels says, the Union soldiers gave them a “new name, / the Corps d’Afrique – words that take the native / from our claim” (“Native Guard: 1865” 3-5). So not only are the black soldiers in the Native Guard nameless, non-human soldiers, who perform dehumanizing work, now they aren’t even American or Africans. They are again re-inscribed by their white counterparts and renamed this time with French words, “Corps d’Afrique.” The foreign use of “Afrique,” erases and renames their home continent, Africa. As a result, they are native guards, but they are no longer native to anywhere. They have been inscribed as less than human, and they have been erased from the history Business Relationships and from any claim to citizenship. This is what Daniels intends to correct in his journal entries.

His historical corrections are inscribed in a Confederate soldier’s journal, like a palimpsest over the Confederate’s soldier’s words. The cover image on the paperback edition of Native Guard provides a good visual for how Daniels words are written at an angle across the Confederate soldier’s words, which results with the Confederate’s soldier’s “story intersecting with” Daniel’s story, and which creates a fuller, more nuanced historical account. This more detailed history provides a punctum that terrifies the imprisoned white rebel soldiers whom Daniels guards. These uneducated white rebel soldier prisoners fear what they can’t read or write, fear an educated black man who is smarter than they are, and, more importantly, they fear what he will write about them in his journal. In other words, Daniels now controls their historical fates, as he can reinvent or re-inscribe them as he desires, or with greater impact, he can represent them as they are. And so those imprisoned soldiers remain quiet because “they fear / I’ll [Daniels will] listen, put something else down in ink” (“Native Guard: February 1863” 13-14). In a stark role reversal, Daniels takes away the voice of the Confederate white soldiers defending slavery, and he writes a new voice for them in his historical account of the Civil War. He provides the uncanny voice of the black soldier in the white historical studium. “By turning this poem into the very memory that haunts the maimed history of the Civil War,” as Kim points out, “Trethewey claims that the Civil War history remains incomplete if we ignore the intersections of black and white stories” (93) and if we ignore the overlooked and silent characters in the war. With this in mind, the “Document” section, the first section of Native Guard, can be regarded.

The “Document” section tells of another overlooked character in history who has not been given voice – Trethewey’s mother. The “Document” section also acts as a memorial for her. Trethewey’s mother (Gwen Trethewey) was an African American woman married to Natasha’s father (Eric Trethewey), a white Canadian man. When Natasha Trethewey was about six years old, they divorced. By the time Natasha was in college, Gwen had a relationship with, was married to, and was divorced from Joel Grimmette. The whole while, Grimmette “was resentful of her [Gwen] because she was a constant reminder that his wife [Gwen] had once been married to a white man” (Eric Trethewey 683). Grimmette not only hated white people, but he was also mentally unstable and was physically and mentally abusive toward Gwen. Grimmette eventually became so jealous that he shot and killed Gwen. Gwen’s murder is not foregrounded in the poem, but Grimmette’s abuse of her is, and will be looked at in a moment.

In the Whitman tradition of celebrating “everyone, even the lowliest prostitute or degraded slave” (Trethewey, “On Whitman” 51), Trethewey, as noted, has written about prostitutes and the overlooked black soldiers in American history, and now she will turn to her mother not only because of Whitman’s influence on Tretheway to give voice to the silent but also because as Mae Gwendolyn Henderson points out in “Speaking in Tongues”:

[B]lack women writers have encoded oppression as a discursive dilemma, that is, their works have consistently raised the problem of the black woman’s relationship to power and discourse. Silence is an important element of this code. [. . .] In other words, it is not that black women, in the past, have had nothing to say, but rather they have had no say. The absence of black female voices has allowed others to inscribe, or write, and ascribe to, or read them. (354).

The “Document” section is another example of puncturing the studium of exclusive history with an inclusive history of the silenced. And, in this case, the silence that Henderson mentions can be most readily be seen in Trethewey’s “What the Body Can Say.” In this poem, there is an image that is not dissimilar to Ophelia’s open-mouthed punctum¬ in the photograph of Bellocq’s Ophelia. This time the image is of Trethewey’s mother’s “face tilted up / at me, her mouth falling open, wordless” (12-13). What her mother wanted to say “not long before her death” (12) is just as mysterious to Trethewey as what Ophelia wanted to say. To discover what Ophelia wanted to say, Trethewey created a fictional context for her life, but for her mother, Trethewey will create a biographical history by way of poetry using the experiences of her mother. Again, the silent open-mouth is the punctum stimulating pain and pensiveness for Trethewey.

What the mother was probably trying to say was that she was being abused by her husband and Natasha’s step-father, Joel Grimmette. However, as often occurs, the victims of abuse are often silent or silenced about their abuse. Even the legal/historical documents of her abuse were neglected. In the sonnet-shaped poem “What Is Evidence,” Trethewey shows how all the documented evidence (historical records) were denied by way of “not” and “nor.” For instance, the title of the poem is a question, “What is Evidence”? and what follows are a series of rhetorically charged answers to that inquisitive title. Meaning, the poem could be read as asking: What is evidence? It is “Not the fleeting bruises she’d cover / with makeup” (1-2), “nor the quiver / in the voices she’d steady leaning / into a pot of bones on the stove” (4-6), it is also “Not / the teeth she wore in place of her own, or / the official document – its seal / and smeared signature – fading already” (6-10), and it is “Not the tiny marker / with its dates, her name, abstract as history” (10-11). What Trethewey presents, as Daniel Cross Turner points out, is “a chain of negations of what has not counted as evidence in her mother’s long struggles against domestic abuse” (105). The only evidence that appears to be relevant is the “landscape of her [dead] body” (“What is Evidence” 12) slowly decaying “the way all things do” (14). Not only is her mother decaying, but so are the records of her abuse in the “official document[s]” (8). Even the death certificate, “with its dates, her name” (11), are too abstract for comprehension. They are so abstract that one cannot decipher that her mother was murdered. In addition, the dates and her name are just numbers and letters, like those names of those Confederate prisoners inscribed on the plaque at Ship Island, who have now been forgotten and whose existence no longer has meaningful reference. Like Colonel Nathan W. Daniels, who was inscribed in his youth with scars from being whipped by his owner, Trethewey’s mother is inscribed with the “bruises” and wounds of abuse. Thus, neither Daniels nor the Trethewey’s mother has a voice in the studium of exclusionary history, until Trethewey gives them the voice of punctum. She brings the ghosts of the past back to life. Like Dante and Orpheus, she speaks for the dead.

Trethewey, briefly, takes on the personae of Dante in the opening of “Genus Narcissus” – “The road I walked home from school / was dense with trees and shadow” – and these lines recall the opening to The Inferno when Dante finds himself “In dark woods [. . .] / so tangled and rough” (2-3). “Genus Narcissus” also ends with daffodils “like graveside flowers” (19) speaking to her mother to “Die early” (22). This brief allusion to hell sets up a more extensive allusion to hell in Trethewey’s poem, “Myth,” a linear-palindrome poem. On one level, the mirrored reflection of lines (the poem’s first line is its last; its second line is its second-to-last line, etc.) parallels the reflection that Narcissus saw of his face in the water, and thus recalls the poem “Genus Narcissus.” As Giorgia DeCenzo notes, the reflection of the lines is like Narcissus’s “last look into the waters of the Styx in his final journey into the underworld” (28). Further, it mimics the Dantesque hell where, at the end of The Inferno, when Dante is climbing Satan, hell flips and turns upside down, so that instead of going down into the depths of the earth, Dante is climbing up and out of the earth. Most importantly, however, is the poem’s reference to the story of Orpheus going into Erebus to reclaim Eurydice from hell.

Trethewey uses the Orpheus-Eurydice myth comparatively in an attempt to “snatch her mother from the abyss of death” (28). Like Orpheus who looked back at his beloved Eurydice too soon before leaving the underworld and reaching the surface of earth while Eurydice was still in hell, Trethewey awakens with an image “not more real than [. . .] Eurydice’s materialization behind her beloved Orpheus” (28). Both Eurydice and Trethewey’s mother remain behind as images. One would claim this is just another erasure of her mother, but that would be to say that Eurydice, too, is erased from history. Obviously, Eurydice is not erased. She does fail to materialize for a second time on earth, but she is inscribed into history by way of myth, and Trethewey also inscribes her mother into her memories and dreams, or her myth, which she then re-inscribes in this poem (“Myth”) and in the “Document” section. By situating her poem “Myth” in “Document,” Trethewey gives voice for those voices that have been excluded from official history, forgotten or erased, and indicates that poetry is as valid as official documentation in the reclamation of stories that might have been forever lost.

As mentioned earlier, the book Native Guard has a dialectical movement from the “Document” section to the “Monument” section and to the concluding “Testament” section, where the first two sections synthesize into a closer examination of Trethewey’s experience as biracial woman living “a dialectic of dark // and light” (“South” 4-5) in the deep South. What has been outlined so far is Trethewey’s use of history. She has created a fictional history of a woman she once saw in a photograph, she has infused history with the voice of a black soldier who participated in the Civil War but who was not an acknowledged participant, and she has through a biographical fashion recounted the history of her mother. Now, in the “Testament” section, she will present an autobiographical history and a history of realism.

One might consider the historical accounts of her mother in the “Document” section as realism, too, but the portrayal of her mother is filtered through a romantic lens, nostalgic lens, or lens of remembrance. The portrait of her mother has a memorialized sensibility to it, and it doesn’t even mention the most atrocious and real aspect of her mother’s history, which was that she was murdered. Even the details of her abuse leading up to her murder are only briefly noted, which Trethewey did deliberately, perhaps, (as noted earlier) to illustrate the often invisible and silent victim. Trethewey’s fictional account doesn’t address the horrific reality of Gwen Trethewey’s abuse at the hands of her second husband, such Joel Grimmette pricking Gwen Trethewey’s flesh with “a hypodermic syringe filled with battery acid” (Eric Trethewey 689). Nor does it provide the realism of “Incident.”

This realism is a realism mixed with aesthetics, or poetics. And this is an important point. In Bellocq’s Ophelia, Trethewey presented the character Ophelia as a real person with real experiences, but she was fictive and removed from the real. In the “Monument” section of Native Guard, Trethewey provides writings of actual accounts, but she is a step removed from those accounts. That is, for instance, she recalls a documentary she saw in “Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi,” but she didn’t participate in that history. She also explores a Native Guard soldier’s possible experience based in part upon his diary Thank God My Regiment an African One: The Civil War Diary of Colonel Nathan W. Daniels, and, again, she did not, herself, participate in the actual historical moments. She also memorializes her mother through a blend of events that happened, a “flawed, changeful” memory, and sentimentality. In the “Testament” section, however, she writes poems with harsh realities from her experiences that “extend beyond the boundaries of realism” (Quashie 108). As has been noted by many critics, the content of a black writer’s text is of primary importance and the delivery of the content is of little consequence. As Quashie says:

Racist discourses expect black art to tell the true story of black life unvarnished by craft, which is also an expectation of nationalism. This reinforces the social imperative of black art and it encourages us to read black cultural works as social documents or as texts of resistance. What is lost here is not only an appreciation of artistic value but also a sense of how form can disturb the assumed precision of content and support a reconsideration of expressiveness. (105)

Throughout Native Guard, there are many form poems, from the blues-infused sonnet in “Graveyard Blues,” to the terza rima in “Photograph: Ice Storm, 1972,” to the linear palindrome poem “Myth” (which was discussed earlier in that relationship between form and content), the villanelle in the opening section of “Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi,” to the crown of sonnets in “Native Guard,” to all the sonnet-shaped poems, to the ghazal in “Miscegenation,” and the pantoum in “Incident,” to note just a few of the poetic forms that Trethewey engages in the collection. The “Incident” pantoum is example of a poem that “extends beyond realism.”

Before addressing the importance of “Incident” to my argument, however, the blues-infused sonnet “Graveyard Blues” needs to be looked at for what it accomplishes in relation to form and content. This poem is the first traditional form poem in the “Document” section. The first poems in the “Document section do have structural elements – “The Southern Crescent” consists for four nine-line stanzas, and “Genus Narcissus” consists of three-line stanzas with the last stanza being a sole line, as if to suggest that it is an unrhymed terza rima (which makes sense when considering the reference to Dante’s The Inferno in the opening lines). Those two poems, however, are not traditional form poems. “Graveyard Blues” is a form poem, as it is a sonnet, and the sonnet, according to Edward Hirsch, “was invented in southern Italy around 1235 or so” (593). It is a form poem of European origins and is often associated with love poems with logical arguments that were written by white men, such as Shakespeare, Spenser, and Petrarch. This sonnet, however, is not a Shakespearian, Spenserian, or Petrarchan sonnet. It is a Tretheweyian sonnet. It’s an African-American blues sonnet. It uses the elements of the traditional sonnet – it rhymes, it’s in iambic pentameter, and there there’s a volta after line 8, which here occurs with the em dash – and it combines those elements with the elements of blues music – the first two lines of each stanza (except the last) essentially repeat themselves. In blues music, the first line often announces the singers suffering, and the second line repeats it in a manner to invite the listener in with their own similar experience. There is a bonding in the mirroring lines. In the end, this new sonnet form combines love and suffering – the love for her mother and the suffering from her death.

It is also possible Trethewey created this sonnet form to disturb the well-established studium that has accumulated on the sonnet over centuries of use. The sonnet’s original punctum of form has been lost or eroded from centuries of use. So Trethewey reinvents the sonnet and infuses it with black cultural punctum. This poem, in other words, becomes biracial. This poem announces miscegenation. This poem announces how Trethewey will, once again, interact with the historical studium. This poem’s content is about Trethewey’s experience of leaving her recently buried mother – the realism – mixed with aestheticism. As mentioned, traditionally, the content of a poem “challenges racist characterizations” (Quashie 108), but in this poem, she challenges “racist characterizations” through miscegenation of sonnet and blues. This poem, like her, has origins in white and black culture. The realism of this event, however, remains overshadowed by the sentimentality of the memorialization of her mother.

“Incident,” however, in the final “Testament” section, is able to blend realism (or “traumatic event”) and poetic form more effectively. The traumatic event, or “Incident,” is surviving the KKK burning a cross in Trethewey’s front yard when she was a child. Despite the speaker’s repeated understatement “though nothing really happened,” something did happen. Something very real. She and her family survived the threats of the KKK by not responding to or acknowledging the men while hiding within the “darkened [. . .] rooms” (8) of her house. What makes this poem “extend beyond realism” is the use of the pantoum form and its repetitive lines. While the poem assumes the personae of nonchalance, “nothing really happened,” the repetition of lines, like “the charred grass now green again” and “by morning all the flames had dimmed,” is akin to the Freudian notion of the repetition compulsion of a person who has survived a traumatic event. The repetition is a coping method. For the reader, the repetition makes the events in “Incidents” more real. The repetition punctures the understatement and nonchalant tone of the poem. When we read “When they were done, they left quietly. No one came. / The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil” (14-15), we can conclude the family survived the night in fear. When we read the same line later, “by morning the flames had all dimmed // When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came” (16-17), we get the sense the KKK “were disappointed that [the] family did not agitate in a way that would authorize violence greater” (Quashie 107). The second utterance announces a type of triumph, or at the very least, relief. The repetitive nature of the pantoum not only reinforced the realism of the traumatic act but it also instilled a psychological dimension – Trethewey’s psychological dimension. This is the dialectic synthesis of the book, where the “Document” section is the “biographical as thesis” (Mlinko 59), the “Monument” section is “the historical as antithesis” (59), and the “Testament” is the “intertwining of the personal and the historical as synthesis” (59). This last section provides the reader her personal history as a southern biracial woman who has suffered great trauma. The trauma is her punctum piercing the studium of a racist history. Her historical events cause pensiveness in Trethewey, which she then inscribes in a book of poems. Thus, Native Guard challenges the exclusive and exclusionary history and “destroys it,” as Barthes says, “for the sake of my [her] own history” (65). Her poems give voice to her traumas growing up a biracial woman in the south.

While the operator (the photographer, writer, or historian) cannot create punctum, Trethewey is able to locate the latent punctum that does exist historically and within her own life. She is able to find the invisible, overlooked, and mysterious moments, such as the open mouthed silence of Ophelia, the open mouthed silence of her mother, the unacknowledged black Native Guard, and the moments in her own history that need a voice, like being silent in history class when the lies of slavery were taught or being silent and hiding to avoid the violence of the KKK. These moments are the punctum that she discovers. These are the moments or details that cause wounds in history or herself and that cause her as a spectator looking back on history (the history of the South and her own personal history) to act pensively and to create meaning in and from history or from her own life experiences. In the end, she succeeds in “redress[ing] the omissions and errors in history” (Trethewey, “Why I Write” 6). And just as she makes history less exclusive and more inclusive via her poetry, Trethewey also utilizes French structuralist Roland Barthes’s exclusive photographic use of studium and punctum to include or to be applicable to history, poetry, and a biracial woman growing up in the South.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno of Dante. Translated by Robert Pinsky, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Hill and Wang, 1981.

DeCenzo, Giorgia. “Natasha Trethewey: The Native Guard of Southern History.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 73 no. 1, Winter 2008, pp. 20-49. JSTOR,

Fried, Michael. “Barthes’s Punctum.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 31 no. 3, Spring 2005, pp. 539-74. JSTOR.

Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialetics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition.” African American Literary Theory: A Reader, edited by Winston Napier, New York University Press, pp. 348-368.

Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Jackson, Major. “The Historical Poem.” American Poet, vol. 35, Fall 2008, pp. 3-6. Literary Reference Center, EBSCOhost,

Keats, John. “To George and Thomas Keats: 21, 27 (?) December 1817.” Selected Poems and Letters, edited by Douglas Bush, Riverside Editions, 1959, pp. 260-61.

Kim, Jee Eun. “‘His Story Intersecting with My Own’: Miscegenation as History in Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard.” Valley Voices: A Literary Review, vol. 12 no. 2, Fall 2012, pp. 91-95. Ebscohost,

Mlinko, Ange. “Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey.” Poetry, vol. 191, no. 1, Oct. 2007, pp. 59-61. JSTOR,

Ortega, Mariana. “Wounds of Self: Experience, Word, Image, and Identity.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol 22, no. 4, 2008, pp. 235-47. JSTOR,

Palmer, Andrew, and Sally Minogue. “Memorial Poems and the Poetics of Memorializing.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 34, no. 1, Fall 2010, pp. 162-181. JSTOR,

Pereira, Malin. “Re-reading Trethewey Through Mixed Race Studies.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 4, Summer 2013, pp. 123-152. Ebscohost,

Quashie, Kevin. The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Rowell, Charles Henry. “Inscriptive Restorations: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey.” Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters, vol. 27, no. 4, 2004, pp. 1021-1034. JSTOR,

Trethewey, Eric. “Connections and Correspondences.” The Antioch Review, vol. 66, no. 4, Fall 2008, pp. 682-94. JSTOR,

Trethewey, Natasha. Bellocq’s Ophelia. Graywolf Press, 2002.
—. Native Guard. Mariner Books, 2006.
—. “On Whitman, Civil War Memory, and My South.” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 81, no. 2, Spring 2005, pp. 50-65. Ebscohost,
—. “Why I Write.” South Central Review, vol. 31, no .1, Spring 2014, pp. 1-16. Project Muse,

Turner, Daniel Cross. “Lyric Dissections: Rendering Blood Memory in Natasha Trethewey’s and Yusef Komunyakka’s Poetry of Black Diaspora.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 50, no .4, Summer 2013, pp. 99-122. Ebscohost,

Tom Holmes

Tom Holmes is the founding editor of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics, and author of three full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Cave, which won The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013, as well as four chapbooks. He teaches at The University of Southern Mississippi. His writings about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog, The Line Break. Follow him on Twitter: @TheLineBreak.

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