Bellocq's Ophelia

Bellocq's Ophelia

by Natasha Trethewey
     
 

Selected as a "2003 Notable Book" by the American Library Association

In the early 1900s, E.J. Bellocq photographed prostitutes in the red-light district of New Orleans. His remarkable, candid photos inspired Natasha Trethewey to imagine the life of Ophelia, the subject of Bellocq's Ophelia, her stunning second collection of poems. With elegant

Overview

Selected as a "2003 Notable Book" by the American Library Association

In the early 1900s, E.J. Bellocq photographed prostitutes in the red-light district of New Orleans. His remarkable, candid photos inspired Natasha Trethewey to imagine the life of Ophelia, the subject of Bellocq's Ophelia, her stunning second collection of poems. With elegant precision, Ophelia tells of her life on display: her white father whose approval she earns by standing very still; the brothel Madame who tells her to act like a statue while the gentlemen callers choose; and finally the camera, which not only captures her body, but also offers a glimpse into her soul.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A novella-in-verse that is a pleasure and a revelation to read.” —Garrett Hongo

“This Ophelia, Trethewey's invention, pierces us with lush, tough, elegant poetry, as she yearns to step out of a constricting frame, 'wide-eyed, into life.' Hers--theirs--is a stunning accomplishment.” —Gail Mazur

“Trethewey carries forward the lyric musings on black women's lives that she began in her arresting debut, Domestic Work (2000). Photographs served as inspiration there; here Trethewey fashions a one-woman monologue in response to a famous series of early-twentieth-century photographs taken by E.J. Bellocq in Storyville, New Orleans' red-light district. Portraits of an unnamed light-skinned black woman who stares into the lens with assured defiance galvanized Trethewey, who dubs her Ophelia and allows her to speak. As Ophelia writes eloquently restrained and resolute letters to a favorite teacher and tells the heartbreaking story of her failed search for respectable employment and her rescue from hunger and homelessness by a kind and patient madame, Trethewey creates a persona who belies the implied tragedy of her name by focusing her keen intellect on survival and, ultimately, taking control of the camera and her life. Like Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination and Adrienne Rich's lean but commanding poems, Trethewey's spare yet plangent verse portrait illuminates a soul ennobled in her quiet battle with injustice.” —Booklist

Publishers Weekly
Following up her debut, Domestic Work (2000), which included a number of historical monologues, Tretheway's short sophomore effort is a quiet collection of poems in the persona of a "very white-skinned black woman mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon," a prostitute in New Orleans just before WWI. The Bellocq of the title is E.J., the Toulouse-Lautrec-like photographer whose Storyville prostitute portraits, brought out from oblivion by Lee Friedlander, inspired Louis Malle's 1978 film Pretty Baby and now this sequence. A stanza that begins "There are indeed all sorts of men who visit here" predictably yet elegantly ends "And then there are those, of course, whose desires I cannot commit to paper." Yet this is not generally a sentimentalized account of a conventional subject. Much more like Bellocq's artless, sympathetic and gorgeous portraits are lines like these, describing the "girls": "They like best, as I do, the regular meals, warm from the cooks in our own kitchen, the clean indoor toilet and hot-water bath." While the trend of the first-person historical novel (think Wittgenstein's Nephew as much as Corelli's Mandolin) has passed, the best poems here fulfill the genre's mandate to spice up the period piece with intellectual frisson; Tretheway goes two-for-two by successfully taking on the poetically dubious task of working from art and making it signify anew. (Apr.) Forecast: Despite the book's brevity, expect review attention, as well as short items in glossies profiling Tretheway with the requisite provocative Bellocq reproductions. National Poetry Month reviewers wanting to take stock of recent poetry by African-American women might place this book alongside Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary (Forecasts, Dec. 17, 2001) and Elizabeth Alexander's Antebellum Dream Book (published last year). Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781555973599
Publisher:
Graywolf Press
Publication date:
04/01/2002
Pages:
64
Sales rank:
1,143,039
Product dimensions:
6.55(w) x 8.93(h) x 0.19(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


    Letter Home


—New Orleans, November 1910


Four weeks have passed since I left, and still
I must write to you of no work. I've worn down
the soles and walked through the tightness
of my new shoes, calling upon the merchants,
their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking
my plain English and good writing would secure
for me some modest position. Though I dress each day
in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves
you crocheted—no one needs a girl. How flat
the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins.
I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet
industry, to mask the desperation that tightens
my throat. I sit watching—


though I pretend not to notice—the dark maids
ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive
anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown
as your dear face, they'd know I'm not quite
what I pretend to be. 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. There are enough things here
to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through
the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall
the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard
at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking
their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads
on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots
and irons of the laundresses call to me. Here,
I thought not todo the work I once did, back-bending
and domestic; my schooling a gift—even those half days
at picking time, listening to Miss J—. How
I'd come to know words, the recitations I practiced
to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up
or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until
I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,
I repeated whole sections I'd learned by heart,
spelling each word in my head to make a picture
I could see, as well as a weight I could feel
in my mouth. So now, even as I write this
and think of you at home, Good-bye

is the waving map of your palm, is
a stone on my tongue.


    Countess P—'s Advice for New Girls

—Storyville, 1910


Look, this is a high-class house—polished
mahogany, potted ferns, rugs two inches thick.
The mirrored parlor multiplies everything—

one glass of champagne is twenty. You'll see
yourself a hundred times. For our customers
you must learn to be watched. Empty

your thoughts—think, if you do, only
of your swelling purse. Hold still as if
you sit for a painting. Catch light

in the hollow of your throat; let shadow dwell
in your navel and beneath the curve
of your breasts. See yourself through his eyes—

your neck stretched long and slender, your back
arched—the awkward poses he might capture
in stone. Let his gaze animate you, then move

as it flatters you most. Wait to be
asked to speak. Think of yourself as molten glass—
expand and quiver beneath the weight of his breath.

Don't pretend you don't know what I mean.
Become what you must. Let him see whatever
he needs. Train yourself not to look back.


    Letters from Storyville

    December 1910


Miss Constance Wright
I Schoolhouse Road
Oakvale, Mississippi

My Dearest Constance,

I am not out-of-doors as you feared,
and though I've had to tuck the blue, wool suit
you gave me, I do now have plenty to eat.
I have no doubt my decision will cause you
much distress, but still I must tell you—
when I had grown too weary to keep up
my inquiries and my rent was coming
due, I had what must be considered
the good fortune to meet Countess P—,
an elegant businesswoman who offered
me a place in her house. I did not accept
then, though I had tea with her—the first
I'd had in days. And later, too hungry
to reason, I spent the last of my purse
on a good meal. It was to her that I went
when I had to leave my hotel, and I am
as yet adjusting to my new life.

This first week I sat—as required—
each evening in the parlor, unnoticed,
the "professor" working the piano
into a frenzy, a single cockroach
scaling the flocked-velvet wallpaper.
The men who've come have called only
on the girls they know—their laughter
trailing off behind them, their gowns
floating past the balustrade. Though
she's said nothing, Countess is indeed
sympathetic. Just the other night
she introduced me to a longtime client
in hopes that he'd take a liking to me.
I was too shy to speak and only pretended
to sip the wine he'd ordered. Of course,
he found me dull and soon excused himself
to find another girl. Part of me was
quite relieved, though I knew I could not
earn a living that way.

                      And so, last night
I was auctioned as a newcomer
to the house—as yet untouched, though
Countess knows well the thing from which
I've run. Many of the girls do too,
and some of them even speak of a child
they left behind. The auction was a near
quiet affair—much like the one Whitman
described, the men some wealthy "gentlemen"
from out of town. Countess announced
that I recite poetry, hinting at a more dignified
birth and thus a tragic occasion for my arrival
at her house. She calls me Violet now—
a common name here in Storyville—except
that I am the African Violet for the promise
of that wild continent hidden beneath
my white skin. At her cue, I walked slowly
across the room, paused in strange postures
until she called out, Tableau vivant, and
I could again move—all this to show
the musical undulation of my hips, my grace,
and my patience which was to mean
that it is my nature to please and that I could,
if so desired, pose still as a statue for hours,
a glass or a pair of boots propped upon my back.

        And then, in my borrowed gown
I went upstairs with the highest bidder.
He did not know to call me

Ophelia


    January 1911

I know you are driven
to such harsh words
first, out of your concern
for me, and second,
out of your gentle piousness
which I still fondly recall—
the modest tilt of your head,
even when you scolded me,
your prayer book tucked
neatly between the cushions
of your settee. My dear,

please do not think
I am the wayward girl
you describe. I alone
have made this choice.
Save what I pay for board,
what I earn is mine. Now
my labor is my own.
Already my purse swells.
I have bought my mother
some teeth, paid to have
her new well dug. Perhaps

you are too delicate to know
of my life here. Still,
you remain my dearest friend
and should not worry
that I won't write. I know
your own simple means
prevent you from helping me
as you would like. Help me only
as you already do—with the words
I crave, the mundane details
of your quiet life.

Meet the Author

Mississippi native Natasha Trethewey is the recipient of the Grolier Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize. Her poems have been widely published, and one of them appeared in The Best American Poetry 2000. Her first book, Domestic Work, was the first winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, selected by Rita Dove and published by Graywolf in 2000. Trethewey teaches creative writing at Emory Writing.

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