Natasha Trethewey turned to poetry to make sense of what happened after her mother was kidnapped and murdered more than three decades ago.
In 1985, Trethewey’s stepfather pleaded guilty to the crime in DeKalb County and was sentenced to two consecutive life terms behind bars. Trethewey has said her first attempts at writing poetry about her mother were not successful. But she kept at it for two decades, drawing inspiration and comfort from other poetry, including W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a multilayered poem about the mundane routines of life carrying on amid a tragedy. Moving back to the Atlanta area — closer to where she one lived with her family — helped Trethewey recover her memories of her mother.Searing and unforgettable, the pieces she eventually wrote are among the most powerful in “Monument,” a retrospective collection of the former Emory University professor’s work. Longlisted for this year’s National Book Awards, “Monument” draws from her collections “Domestic Work,” “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” “Native Guard,” “Congregation,” and “Thrall.” It also includes 11 new poems written over the last decade.
The scope of “Monument” is impressive. Demonstrating her versatility, Trethewey writes about growing up in the Jim Crow South, the daughter of a black mother and white father. She writes about black Union Army troops — some former slaves — who guarded Confederate prisoners of war. And she writes about a mixed-race prostitute photographed in New Orleans in the early 20th century.