Domestic Work

Overview

Mississippi native Natasha Trethewey, author of Bellocq's Ophelia and Domestic Work, has been awarded the Grolier Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize. Her work was also included in The Best American Poetry 2000. Trethewey now lives in Decatur, Georgia, and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Emory University.

Winner of the 1999 Cave Canem Poetry Prize
Winner of the ...

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Overview

Mississippi native Natasha Trethewey, author of Bellocq's Ophelia and Domestic Work, has been awarded the Grolier Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize. Her work was also included in The Best American Poetry 2000. Trethewey now lives in Decatur, Georgia, and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Emory University.

Winner of the 1999 Cave Canem Poetry Prize
Winner of the 2001 Lillian Smith Book Award
Winner of the 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award

In this widely celebrated debut collection of poems, Natasha Trethewey draws moving domestic portraits of families, past and present, caught in the act of earning a living and managing their households. Small moments taken from a labor-filled day—and rendered here in graceful and readable verse—reveal the equally hard emotional work of memory and forgetting, the extraordinary difficulty of trying to live with or without someone.

"Trethewey's first book, which creates a picture of African-Americans at work, is carefully rendered from old photos, history, and memory with a loving and thoughtful eye. Her work raises one's conscience with the truths inherent in simple word combinations . . . and the care taken in ordering the pieces leads the reader from one poem to the next in graceful order."—Christian Science Monitor

"Trethewey's book puts women's work, and, in particular, black women's work, the hard unpretty background music of our survival, in its proper perspective. For all her meticulous control and subtle perception, this is a revolutionary book that cuts right through to the deepest places in the soul."—Toi Derricotte

"Trethewey's first volume of poems, Domestic Work, marks the addition of a valuable new voice to the varied cacophony of contemporary American poetry."—Oxford American

"In a voice confident, diverse, and directed, Trethewey's Domestic Work does what a first book should, and more."—Ploughshares

"Trethewey's Domestic Work depicts an arresting psychological landscape. Her mirrors sway light and shadow over sharp portraits of people in a world between worlds. Yet, their rituals and obsessions make them like us. Seemingly straightforward and plainly spoken, woven of what dares to sound everyday, these poignant narratives are deceptive as they throw an emotional cast and the reader is beckoned to a place like no other."—Yusef Komunyakaa

"Trethewey's first book uses simple details to create an image of a people and the things that shape their world. The world is accessible, but in itself is not simple. It has beauty to it."—Mid-American Review

"Trethewey's fine first collection functions as near-social documentary . . . Trethewey evenly takes up the difficult task of preserving, and sometimes speculating upon, the people and conditions of the mostly Southern, mostly black working class."—Publishers Weekly

"The plain language and surface simplicity of these poems is deceptive. Their insights into the history and experience of black Americans contain a profound message for all of us . . . [This is] a noteworthy debut by a remarkable young poet."—Kirkus Reviews

"Selected by former poet laureate Rita Dove for the 1999 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, this debut is a marvelously assured collection exploring African-American heritage, civil rights, the work of women, and the sensuous work of the spirit. These exquisite poems are full of individuals who live, hurt, jazz, love, celebrate, sing, and, of course, work with dignity."—Herman Fong, The Odyssey Bookshop (South Hadley, MA)

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With poems based on photographs of African-Americans at work in the pre-civil rights era 20th-century America (not included), Trethewey's fine first collection functions as near-social documentary. In tableaux like "These Photographs" and "Signs, Oakvale, Mississippi, 1941," Trethewey evenly takes up the difficult task of preserving, and sometimes speculating upon, the people and conditions of the mostly Southern, mostly black working class. The sonnets, triplets and flush-left free verse she employs give the work an understated distance, and Trethewey's relatively spare language allows the characters, from factory and dock workers to homemakers, to take on fluid, present-tense movement: "Her lips tighten speaking/ of quitting time when/ the colored women filed out slowly/ to have their purses checked,/ the insides laid open and exposed/ by the boss's hand" ("Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956"). When Trethewey, a member of the Dark Room Collective (a group of young African-American writers including Thomas Sayers Ellis, Kevin Young and Janice Lowe), turns midway through the book to matters of family and autobiography, the book loses some momentum. But when the speaker comments on the actions of others, as in "At the Station," the poems correspondingly deepen: "Come back. She won't. Each/ glowing light dims/ the farther it moves from reach,// the train pulling clean/ out of the station. The woman sits/ facing where she's been.// She's chosen her place with care--/ each window another eye, another/ way of seeing what's back there." Trethewey's work follows in the wake of history and memory, tracing their combined effect on her speaker and subjects, and working to recover and preserve vitally local histories. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Kirkus Reviews
Trethewey's verse explores the various forms of labor-from the men on the docks to the women employed as domestics. Of a photograph of washerwomen taken by Clifton Johnson in 1902, Trethewey writes: "But in this photograph, / women do not smile, / their lips a steady line / connecting each quiet face. / They walk the road toward home, / a week's worth of take-in laundry / balanced on their heads / lightly as church hats. Shaded / by their loads, they do not squint, / their ready gaze through him, / to me, straight ahead." Her remembrances of her own family are touching. In "Cameo," she recalls peering out from her bed as a child to watch her mother dress by the light of an oil lamp and in "Hot Combs" how the heat in the kitchen made her mother "glow" when she pulled combs from the fire to dress her hair, "her face made strangely beautiful / as only suffering can do." Her father, who loved reading and scholarship and had "gentle hands," had been an amateur boxer who first took up the sport while still a boy and later "turned that anger into a prize." From him she learned that "living meant suffering, loss" and that "really living meant taking risks" ("Amateur Fighter"). The plain language and surface simplicity of these poems is deceptive. Their insights into the history and experience of black Americans contain a profound message for all of us.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555973094
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2000
  • Pages: 70
  • Sales rank: 589,590
  • Product dimensions: 5.99 (w) x 9.05 (h) x 0.24 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


    Gesture of a Woman-in-Process

—from a photograph, 1902


In the foreground, two women, their squinting faces creased into texture—
a deep relief—the lines like palms of hands I could read if I could touch.
Around them, their dailiness: clotheslines sagged with linens, a patch of greens and yams,
buckets of peas for shelling. One woman pauses for the picture. The other won't be still.
Even now, her hands circling, the white blur of her apron still in motion.


    At the Owl Club, North Gulfport, Mississippi, 1950


Nothing idle here—the men so casual, each lean, each tilted head and raised glass a moment's stay from work.
Son Dixon's center of it all, shouldering the cash register. This is where his work is: the New Orleans tailored suits,
shining keys, polished wood and mirrors of the bar. A white Cadillac out front. Money in his pocket, a good cigar.
The men gather here after work, a colored man's club. Supper served in the back—gumbo, red beans, talk of the Negro Leagues.
They repeat in leisure what they've done all day— stand around the docks, waiting for a call, for anything to happen,
a chance to heave crates of bananas and spiders. A risky job, its only guarantee theconsolation check for a dead man's family.
Their lace-up boots say shipyard. Dirt-caked trousers, yard work. Regal Quarts in hand— It's payday man.


    Three Photographs

—by Clifton Johnson, 1902


    1. Daybook, April 1901


What luck to find them here! Through my lens, I watch them strain against motion, hold still
for my shutter to open and close— two Negro men, clothes like church, collecting flowers in a wood,
pine needles and ivy twisting round. I think to call it Bouquets for Sweethearts, a blessing though their faces
hold little emotion. And yet, they make such good subjects. Always easy to pose,
their childlike curiosity. How well this arbor frames my shot—an intimate setting,
the boughs nestling us like brothers. How fortunate still to have found them here
instead of farther along by that old cemetery too full with new graves
and no flowers.


    2. Cabbage Vendor


Natural, he say. What he want from me? Say he gone look through that hole— his spirit box— and watch me sell my cabbages to make a picture hold this moment, forever. Nothing natural last forever. When I'm in my garden tearing these cabbages from earth, hearing them scream at the break, my fingers brown as dirt—that's natural. Or when I be in my kitchen frying up salt pork to cook that cabbage, them meeting in the pot like kin—that's natural. Grown cabbage and cook cabbage don't keep. Even dead don't keep same. But he will keep my picture, unnatural like hoodoo love. I could work a root of my own, turn that thing around and make him see himself like he be seeing me— distant and small—forever.


    3. Wash Women


The eyes of eight women I don't know stare out from this photograph saying remember. Hung against these white walls, their dark faces, common as ones I've known, stand out like some distant Monday I've only heard about. I picture wash day: red beans simmering on the stove, a number three tin tub on the floor, well-water ready to boil. There's cook-starch for ironing, and some left over to eat.
I hear the laughter, three sisters speaking of penny drinks, streetcars, the movie house. A woman like my grandmother rubs linens against the washboard ribs, hymns growing in her throat. By the window, another soaks crocheted lace, then presses each delicate roll, long fingers wet and glistening. And in the doorway, the eldest shifts her milk-heavy breasts, a pile of strangers' clothes, soiled, at her feet.
But in his photograph, women do not smile, their lips a steady line connecting each quiet face. They walk the road toward home, a week's worth of take-in laundry balanced on their heads lightly as church hats. Shaded by their loads, they do not squint, their ready gaze through him, to me, straight ahead.
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Table of Contents

Introduction
Gesture of a Woman-in-Process 3
At the Owl Club, North Gulfport, Mississippi, 1950 4
Three Photographs 6
Domestic Work, 1937 13
Speculation, 1939 14
Secular 15
Signs, Oakvale, Mississippi, 1941 16
Expectant 17
Tableau 18
At the Station 19
Naola Beauty Academy, New Orleans, 1945 20
Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956 21
His Hands 22
Self-Employment, 1970 23
Early Evening, Frankfort, Kentucky 27
Cameo 28
Hot Combs 29
Family Portrait 30
Mythmaker 31
Amateur Fighter 33
Flounder 35
White Lies 37
Microscope 38
Saturday Matinee 40
History Lesson 45
Saturday Drive 46
Accounting 47
Gathering 48
Give and Take 50
Housekeeping 52
Picture Gallery 53
Collection Day 54
Carpenter Bee 56
Limen 58
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