"I shirk not": domestic labor, sex work, and warfare in the poetry ofNatasha Trethewey
.62.1-2 (Winter-Spring 2009): p265. From
Literature Resource Center
BORN IN GULFPORT, MISSISSIPPI, IN 1966,
HASpublished three major collections since 2000. Winner of the inaugural Cave CanemPoetry Prize for the best first book by an African American poet, Domestic Work(2000) arrived with cover art by Romare Bearden and cover blurbs by Toi Derricotte,Yusef Komunyakaa, and Rita Dove. Reminiscent of Emerson's salute to thenewcomer Walt Whitman on the publication of his first book, Dove--a former US poetlaureate--introduces
in ringingly prophetic terms: "Here is a young poetin full possession of her craft, ready to testify. To which I say: Can we get an'Amen?' And: Let these voices be heard" (Domestic Work back cover). The men andwomen who speak in
's first volume, and in the two that followed, comefrom generations of the South's black working class. Honoring their lives, DomesticWork, Bellocq's Ophelia (2002), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard (2006)place a high value on their humble labors. In these poems, even the most gruelingand tedious occupations can become powerful vehicles of insight and self-expression. (2)The poet takes her cue from W. E. B. Du Bois, whose The Souls of Black Folk(1903) provides an epigraph for the "Domestic Work" sequence in her first collection:"I shirk not. I long for work. I pant for a life full of striving" (11).
's earlypoems are filled with as many sorts of laborers as Whitman's Leaves of Grass:seamstresses, photographers, laundrywomen, maids, cashiers, beauticians,elevator operators, boxers, machinists at a drapery factory, 1930s Hollywoodstarlets, Mississippi dockworkers, and even an insurance collector for the EverlastInterment Company. Derricotte says that
"puts women's work, and inparticular, black women's work, the hard unpretty background music of our survival,in its proper perspective.... this is a revolutionary book that cuts right through to thedeepest places in the soul" (DW back cover). Women do strive mightily in DomesticWork, but men also contribute their sweat and souls to
's labor force.Much of the work splits along traditional gender lines: black women scrub whitewomen's floors, while black men "heave crates of bananas and spiders" on theGulfport docks ("At the Owl Club," DW 4).In fact,
's second and third books exaggerate the division of labor,focusing on prostitutes in Bellocq's Ophelia and on soldiers in the title segment ofNative Guard. While the nature of their work seems to underscore female and malestereotypes, the laborers themselves are less conventional since
's earlytwentieth-century sex workers and her Civil War soldiers are African American.White prostitutes and white enlisted men of those eras became familiar andsympathetic figures in the fiction of Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, Stephen Crane, andTheodore Dreiser.
says she writes about racially marginalized people