Three Poems by Natasha Trethewey
Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus, or The Mulata
—after the painting by Diego Velàzquez, ca. 1619
She is the vessels on the table before her: the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red and upside down. Bent over, she is the mortar and the pestle at rest in the mortar—still angled in its posture of use. She is the stack of bowls and the bulb of garlic beside it, the basket hung by a nail on the wall and the white cloth bundled in it, the rag in the foreground recalling her hand. She’s the stain on the wall the size of her shadow— the color of blood, the shape of a thumb. She is echo of Jesus at table, framed in the scene behind her: his white corona, her white cap. Listening, she leans into what she knows. Light falls on half her face.
—from Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), reprinted with the permission of the poet
I am four in this photograph, standing on a wide strip of Mississippi beach, my hands on the flowered hips of a bright bikini. My toes dig in, curl around wet sand. The sun cuts the rippling Gulf in flashes with each tidal rush. Minnows dart at my feet glinting like switchblades. I am alone except for my grandmother, other side of the camera, telling me how to pose. It is 1970, two years after they opened the rest of this beach to us, forty years since the photograph where she stood on a narrow plot of sand marked colored, smiling, her hands on the flowered hips of a cotton meal-sack dress.
—from Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000), reprinted with the permission of the poet
The Southern Crescent
1 In 1959 my mother is boarding a train. She is barely sixteen, her one large grip bulging with homemade dresses, whisper of crinoline and lace, her name stitched inside each one. She is leaving behind the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film of red dust around her ankles, the thin whistle of wind through the floorboards of the shotgun house, the very idea of home.
Ahead of her, days of travel, one town after the next, and California, a word she can’t stop repeating. Over and over she will practice meeting her father, imagine how he must look, how different now from the one photo she has of him. She will look at it once more, pulling into the station at Los Angeles, and then again and again on the platform, no one like him in sight.
2 The year the old Crescent makes its last run, my mother insists we ride it together. We leave Gulfport late morning, heading east. Years before, we rode together to meet another man, my father, waiting for us as our train derailed. I don’t recall how she must have held me, how her face sank as she realized, again, the uncertainty of it all—that trip, too, gone wrong. Today,
she is sure we can leave home, bound only for whatever awaits us, the sun now setting behind us, the rails humming like anticipation, the train pulling us toward the end of another day. I watch each small town pass before my window until the light goes, and the reflection of my mother’s face appears, clearer now as evening comes on, dark and certain.
—from Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), reprinted with the permission of