This month, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey officially began her stint as Poet Laureate of the United States. One of Trethewey's poems that I return to often is "Housekeeping":
We mourn the broken things, chair legs/ Wrenched from their seats, chipped plates/ The threadbare clothes. We work the magic/ of glue, drive the nails, mend the holes./ We save what we can, melt small pieces/ of soap, gather fallen pecans, keep neck bones/ for soup. Beating rugs against the house,/ we watch dust, lit like stars, spreading/ across the yard. Late afternoon, we draw/ the blinds to cool the rooms, drive the bugs/ out. My mother irons, singing, lost in reverie./ I mark the pages of a mail-order catalog,/ listen for passing cars. All day we watch/ for the mail, some news from a distant place.
The sounds of music, hands working, industrious and nurturing movement, and productivity all punctuate this poem. In the lines, the forgotten are no longer forgotten; they breathe and move in the lyrical and vibrant remembrance of verse.
The lines awaken my own private memories -- of my maternal grandmother, of her perpetually working hands, and especially of the quilts she created long before I was born. I keep three of the quilts now. My youngest son enjoys rolling around in one; my two older children sometimes sleep under, other times build forts with, the other two.
When my grandmother made these quilts, she was raising 11 children in the 1930s and 1940s in a Jim Crow Nashville, Tennessee. She was earning $1.20 for whitening another family's sheets and shirts by hand. (In one of her notebooks, her handwriting scrawls these paltry payments and bills owned, the numbers rarely balancing.) She cooked multiple homemade meals for her family every day and cleaned her own house. Yet, somehow, she still found a bit of time every evening to hand stitch pieces of fabric into quilts large enough to cover a full sized bed.
I often look at these quilts in awe. I'm sure that part of what compelled my grandmother to create them was that her family needed blankets to keep warm. Knowing what I know about her, she also would've felt a need to put these scraps from worn out clothing or sheets to a new use. To "save what we can." In these quilts, I also witness a playfulness I don't remember seeing in her in my visits Down South when I was little. Her juxtapositions of colors, patterns, and textures are inventive and fun. She was an artist. That she was able to practice her homespun art in what little quiet moments she had is nothing short of a domestic miracle.
Trethewey's poetry also recalls for me my father's stories of preparing meals on a naval ship in between manning the guns. My Uncle Albert pounding iron into wood to build the railroad up the Northeast Corridor. And my mother, a WAC in the Korean War, typing secrets in carbon copy. These people and people like them built and recorded this nation through the gesture of their working hands, the will to make of things what they could, the compulsion to create out of necessity. It is that "Made in America" ingenuity that our country now needs to jumpstart anew.
There is another kind of ingenuity, though, that Trethewey's verse recalls: a linguistic ingenuity. Her poetry reminds us to strive to use language in service of a thoughtful democracy. It is this lesson she and fellow poet Garrett Hongo shared with the students and faculty at St. Andrew's School in Delaware in 2004. Trethewey and Hongo emphasized that civic participation at its best is grounded in purposeful, thoughtful language. In the heat of a presidential election year marked by polarizing, sometimes incendiary, often fact-ignoring political rhetoric, poetry reminds us that public discourse needs to aim much higher. Reminding us of that, inviting and challenging us to live up to the task of speaking and thinking in complex ways -- that is the domestic work Trethewey enacts in her poetry, work that will strikingly frame her stint as Poet Laureate.
From October 11-14, 2012 at the 14th biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, Trethewey and dozens of other widely-published and award-winning poets will transform Newark, NJ into a must-visit city for nearly 20,000 literature and culture enthusiasts. Visit www.dodgepoetry.org for information on this extraordinary festival.