10 June 2012

Natasha Trethewey: Poet Laureate

February 1911

There are indeed all sorts of men
who visit here: those who want
nothing but to talk or hear the soft tones
of a woman's voice; others prefer
simply to gaze upon me, my face
turned from them as they touch
only themselves. And then there are those,
of course, whose desires I cannot commit
to paper

You ask me how I can do this —

In those moments I am again
a young girl, just past thirteen, seeing
for the first time, the luxurious curve
beneath my own breasts. So taken
with this view of myself, I sit too long
staring at my revlection in the bathwater,
the tin tub growing cold as I look
through myself to the gray bottom,
to nothing. Only my shivering
and the chattering of my teeth
jar me back, my skin gooseflesh,
the Braille text of my future.

Or I am back at the farm store,
the man leaning over me, pinching
the tiny buds of my new breasts,
sneering, calling me womanish
as I stare at the lines in the floor
until they blur into one smooth path
leading away from that place —

I am then nothing
but the light I see behind my shut eyelids.

Blue Book  — June 1911 

I wear my best gown for the picture — 
white silk with seed pearls and ostrich feathers — 
My hair in a loose chignon.  Behind me,
Bellocq's black scrim just covers the laundry 
Tea towels, bleached and frayed, drying on the line.
I look away from his lens to appear
demure, to attract those guests not wanting
the lewd sights of Emma Johnson's circus. 
Countess writes my description for the book — 
"Violet," a fair-skinned beauty, recites
poetry and soliloquies; nightly
she performs her tableau vivant, becomes
a living statue, an object of art — 
And I fade again into someone I'm not.

Photograph of a Bawd Drinking Raleigh Rye  E. J. Bellocq, circa 1912

The glass in her hand is the only thing moving
too fast for the camera — caught in the blur of motion.

She raises it toasting, perhaps, the viewer you become
taking her in  — your eyes starting low, at her feet,

and following those striped stockings like roads,
traveling the length of her calves and thighs.  Up then,

to the fringed scarf draping her breasts, the heart
locket, her bare should and the patch of dark hair

beneath her arm, the round innocence of her cheeks
and Gibson-girl hair.  Then over to the trinkets on the table

beside her: a clock; tiny feather-backed rocking chairs
poised to move with the slightest wind or breath;

the ebony statuette of a woman, her arms stretched abover
her head.  Even the bottle of rye is a woman's slender torso

and round hips.  On the wall behind her, the image again 
women in paintings, in photographs, and carved in relief

on an oval plane.  And there, on the surface of it all, a thumb-
print  — perhaps yours?  It's easy to see this is all about desire.

Disclosure  —January 1912

When Bellocq doesn't like a photograph
he scratches across the plate.  But I know
other ways to obscure a face — paint it
with rouge and powder, shades lighter than skin,
don a black velvet mask.  I've learned to keep
my face behind the camera, my lens aimed
at a dream of my own making.  What power
I find in transforming what is real — a room
flushed with light, calculated disarray.
Today I tried to capture a redbird
perched on the tall hedge.  As my shutter fell,
he lifted in flight, a vivid blur above
the clutter just beyond the hedge — garbage,
rats licking the insides of broken eggs.

Poems taken from Natasha Trethewey, Bellocq's Ophelia, pages 18, 34, 40, 44.


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