rev. of Domestic Work by Natasha Trethewey

Issue #83
Winter 2000

Domestic Work

Poems by Natasha Trethewey.

Graywolf Press, $12.95 paper.

Reviewed by Kevin Young.

In a voice confident, diverse, and directed, Natasha Trethewey’s
Domestic Work does what a first book should, and more, all while avoiding what first books often do either borrowing themes from other poets or recycling a narrow vision of family life. Here, Trethewey brilliantly discusses family not for its extremes or its small hurts, but rather for the small intimacies that symbolize larger sufferings of history, both personal and public.

This distinction between family as Narcissus’s mirror and as tributary to the present may seem minor, and in other hands it might be. But in Trethewey’s hands hands being a constant theme here, as we might expect from the book’s title the smallest details sing. “Family Portrait” describes “the picture man” who comes to her house; only several stanzas later do we realize that this is, fittingly, a sonnet. In many ways, this unself-conscious use of form has the New Formalists beat for a book about work, we rarely see Trethewey sweat and, throughout, she uses transparent form to chronicle all too invisible lives: “Mama and I spend the morning / cleaning the family room. She hums / Motown, doles out chores, a warning / /
He has no legs, she says,
don’t stare.” The look, or its avoidance, haunts
Domestic Work. So does photography, which opens the book in “Gesture of a Woman-in-Process.” In describing two women from a 1902 photograph, the poem literally views a woman in the act of becoming: “Even now, her hands circling, / the white blur of her apron / still in motion.”

The contradictions of stillness and motion are what Trethewey’s poems seek to capture, questioning whether we can ever nail down (or up) a moment, a life, or history particularly that belonging to women. As such, the second section praises in caption-like poems the poet’s grandmother in work and in love. From “Domestic Work, 1937” to “Self-Employment, 1970,” the section progresses toward independence while moving effortlessly from free verse to sonnets to quatrains, even encompassing the blues of Robert Johnson. Along the way, we have the humiliation of her grandmother’s job in a “Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956,” where “the colored women filed out slowly / to have their purses checked, / the insides laid open and exposed / by the boss’s hand.” With perfect pitch and humor, the poet captures a grandmother’s subtle revenge in “the soiled Kotex / she saved, stuffed into a bag / in her purse, and Adam’s look / on one white man’s face, his hand / deep in knowledge.” With such history and
resistance, with such a casual yet formal style, no wonder Rita Dove selected this volume for the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize.

Here, family is constantly incomplete, often only gestured toward we soon learn that the photo by the picture man is the family’s “only portrait” yet another perspective filled with loss. Still, Trethewey cannot look away; instead, “I watch him bother / / the space for knees, shins, scratching air / as-years later-I’d itch for what’s not there.” Absence is what the rest of the poems circle, describing a mother “who will not reach / forty-one,” a father’s long-gone boxing career “holding his body up to pain,” or the poet’s own “White Lies” as a mixed-race child who “could easily tell the white folks / that we lived uptown, / not in that pink and green / shanty-fied shotgun section / along the tracks.”

The book ends beautifully, and confidently, with a poem selected for this year’s
Best American Poetry. In “Limen,” the poet listens “to the industry / of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree / just outside my window.” The woodpecker’s “task” is much like Trethewey’s: “his body is a hinge, a door knocker / to the cluttered house of memory in which / I can almost see my mother’s face.” Lucky for us, Trethewey sounds out the wood much like the bird: “All day . . .  at work, / tireless, making the green hearts flutter.”

Kevin Young’s first book, Most Way Home,
which won the Zacharis First Book Award, was recently reprinted by Zoland Books. In spring 2001, Zoland will release his second book of poems, To Repel Ghosts.
He also edited Giant Steps
(HarperPerennial), an anthology of new African-American writers.