I have heard it quipped that the only lasting benefit of winning a Pulitzer Prize is that you know what the first three words of your obituary will be: "Pulitzer Prize winner ..." But in poetry, the stamp of the prize catapults a book at least in terms of numbers of copies in print and draws much media attention. The 2006 prize went to Claudia Emerson for "Late Wife," and a good book that hadn't received a lot of press ink suddenly had to be reprinted with an exponential increase in the press run. The selection was a bit surprising in that Emerson's book was quiet and nonpolitical and was published by a university press (Louisiana State University). The prize committee tends toward the big New York presses.
This year's prize is also slightly surprising. Though Natasha Trethewey's "Native Guard" is with Mariner Books, a Houghton Mifflin imprint, it is only her third book and Trethewey is younger than the typical winner. Often the prize goes to a new and selected volume from one of the old elephants of the poetry herd, to recognize lifetime achievement as much as the single book.
While the writing in "Native Guard" is very fine, the book also has a political edge to it that may have helped it garner the big prize. The book is no soapbox rant, but the issue of race and prejudice underpins the poems and perhaps gave the book an added heft in the eyes of the judges.
The poems in the first section of the book are mostly elegies to the speaker's mother, who, we learn, was a victim of domestic violence. In a poem about a photograph taken during an unusual Mississippi ice storm, the poet says: "The picture we took that first morning,/ the front yard a beautiful, strange place --/ why on the back has someone made a list/ of our names, the date, the event: nothing/ of what's inside -- mother, stepfather's fist?" Apparently the violence culminated in the mother's death.
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The next section of the book takes a historical turn. There is a poem about the siege of Vicksburg and one based on a documentary about the history of Mississippi. And then the book gets to its title sequence concerning the Louisiana Native Guard, black soldiers mustered into the Union Army in the fall of 1862. Though performing gallantly, the Guard suffered a number of reprehensible acts including being fired on by their fellow Union soldiers and having their dead left unburied after one battle. The amazing thing about the telling of all this is that Trethewey does it via a crown of sonnets, though she expands the usual seven sonnets to 10 to get the stories in. In a crown, the last line of the first sonnet becomes the first line of the next and so on with the last line of the last poem repeating the first line of the first poem. It's a demanding form and Trethewey handles it beautifully and doesn't let the form itself become the focus. The soldiers' voices that come through the poetry are real and stung with injury of both the physical and psychological kind.
It might seem odd to move from poems of domestic violence to historical violence, but it is actually a shrewd turn on Trethewey's part. She uses the historical to illuminate the more current action and becomes in her way a native guard of the family story. The final section moves back into personal history and comes with more weight for having gone through the past.
As with the sonnets, Trethewey uses a number of forms to good effect. In a villanelle, she tells the story of a Klan cross-burning chillingly from the point of view of a child. "At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,/ a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns./ We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps,/ the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil." The story of the incident is told every year at family gatherings and the repeating lines of the villanelle echo that retelling perfectly.
"Native Guard" takes on the complicated racial history of both the writer's native ground, the South, and her own personal complication of having a white father and black mother and growing up in 1970s Mississippi. Trethewey proves a good guard, always alert and keen with watching, and her reports are true and bracing.
A little closer to home, the N.C. Literary and Historical Association has announced that Catherine Carter's "The Memory of Gills" is this year's winner of the Roanoke-Chowan Prize for Poetry. Kathryn Stripling Byer -- North Carolina poet laureate and Carter's fellow professor at Western Carolina University -- says of the book: " 'The Memory of Gills' is altogether an astonishing, seductive, and finally irresistible book of poems." Here is a poet who hears the voices of the sensate world calling, pleading, cajoling, and although she says, in "Hearing Things," "I don't/ know how to answer, what/ to say," don't believe her. This is Carter's first book, beautifully printed by Louisiana State University Press.