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Poetry Friday: Natasha Trethewey's "Pilgrimage"

Natasha Trethewey's poem "Pilgrimage" is my choice for Poetry Friday. She writes for adults, not children, but teenagers are certainly up to this particular poem. It's about Vicksburg, Mississippi, which is on the Mississippi River. As you probably know, the fall of the city during the Civil War marked a turning point because the Union Army then gained control of the river, dividing the South as well. There's a national military park in the rolling hills on the west side of Vicksburg; 17,000 Union Army troops are buried there. 17,000. "This whole city is a grave," Trethewey writes.

Trethewey, a native of Gulfport, Mississippi, won a Pulitzer this year for Native Guard, the collection in which "Pilgrimage" appears. The publisher, Houghton Mifflin, offers a podcast of Trethewey reading from and talking about the book.


Vicksburg, Mississippi

Here, the Mississippi carved
            its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
            Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city
            as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

To read the entire poem, go to Poets.Org, the web site of the Academy of American Poets.

Update: Monica Edinger, who blogs at Educating Alice, told me that Natasha Trethewey was an artist-in-residence at the Dalton School in NYC last spring.  Monica, who teaches fourth grade there, kindly gave the link for a podcast in which Natasha Trethewey and some of the children recite their works. Thanks, Monica!

Literary Safari rounds up all the Poetry Friday posts on this last Friday in October. (Where did the month go?)


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That's a great selection for Poetry Friday. I love Trethewey's poem. I'm going to have to check to see if the local Borders has NATIVE GUARD. I do shop for adult poetry books there because they have such a great selection. I have to read several poems in a collection before I know it's one I want to purchase.

I like the poem--thanks for sharing it. I have never before taken the time to imagine the Ghost of History in bed with me, and am not sure what to think :) She/he sounds like a restless sleeper.


This is a fabulous poem. Breathtaking.

Ooh, love that ending.

We're featuring an illustration or two this Sunday from LeUyen Pham, whose artwork I love...and it's thanks to a post you did there that I even got to know her stuff. Thanks!

"This whole city is a grave..."

Pilgrimage time in Vicksburg and, further south on the river, Natchez, is when you can tour many of the spruced-up antebellum mansions that still exist in these small cities. Very expensive to maintain, some have been turned into bed-and-breakfasts, like the one Trethewey mentions in her poem. They're beautiful houses; HOWEVER, the economic system that gave rise to them--growing and selling cotton--was based on slavery. I imagine "Prissy's room" was that of a slave. That brings up all sorts of questions: was Prissy a real person? did the B&B owners name the room after a character from Gone with the Wind? Or did Trethewey? B&B proprietors have to make a living of course, and yet they "turn, forgetting from the past," too, don't they?

Trethewey's mother was black, her father white; I read that they had to go to Ohio to get married in the 60's. No wonder that poem's narrator is pinned down by history.

Natasha was artist-in-residence at my school last year. She worked with my class on some wonderful poems. There is a podcast of them reading their poems and Natasha one of hers here: http://blogs.dalton.org/edinger/2007/03/07/a-very-special-literary-salon-030707/

She was in residence there? How cool was that!

Really interesting poem, Susan. One I didn't know. Thanks for sharing it and to Monica for the podcast!!

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