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New US poet laureate hopes to illuminate histories 'lost or forgotten'

Natasha Trethewey’s earliest memory is of taking a trip from Mississippi to Mexico with her parents when she was three years old. She knows how old she was because she has a photograph her father took of her sitting on a mule, the Monterrey mountains in the background, with “Tasha, 1969” written on the back.

Eric Trethewey was a white college professor and poet originally from Canada, and Natasha’s mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, a black social worker from Gulfport. Her parents married when it was still illegal for interracial couples to do so in Mississippi, driving to Ohio and back for the ceremony.

The images from Mexico that stayed with a young Trethewey: the drive through the desert and the mountains, a hotel room with light coming in the bathroom window, someone washing their hands in the sink, a white tile floor.

And this: nearly drowning in the hotel swimming pool.

“I vividly remember sinking into the water and looking up. The sun was bright and I could see the rings on the surface of the water as it was smoothing back above me,” says Trethewey. “Then I saw my mother leaning over me, the outline of her, backlit by the sun.”

From this enduring memory came the poem “Calling,” from Thrall, her recently released fourth collection of poetry:

“. . . What comes back
is the sun’s dazzle on a pool’s surface,
light filtered through water
closing over my head, my mother—her body
between me and the high sun, a corona of light
around her face. Why not call it
a vision? What I know is this:
I was drowning and saw a dark Madonna . . .”

Trethewey, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory, was named the country’s nineteenth poet laureate consultant in poetry on June 7. At forty-six, she is one of the youngest to hold the title, and the first Southerner in more than a quarter-century.

Read full story in Emory Magazine »

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