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On Sundays We Read Poetry

In the fall of 2011, I sent this book - Native Guard - to President Obama. I got a nice card back. In 2012, Natasha Trethewey was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. Coincidence? I think not.

(Yes, I know the Poet Laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress. My version is cooler.)

Trethewey won the Pulitzer in 2007 as a result of this collection: it is gorgeous and lush and mouth-rich, and every time I open it, I find something new to savor. I have Trethewey's forthcoming memoir, Memorial Drive, and perhaps I can make that happen this week. Until then, I'm going to keep letting this poem sing in my head.

What the Body Can Say

Even in stone the gesture is unmistakable --

the man upright, though on his knees, spine

arched, head flung back, and, covering his eyes,

his fingers spread across his face. I think

grief, and since he's here, in the courtyard

of the divinity school, what he might ask of God.

How easy it is to read this body's language,

or those gestures we've come to know -- the raised thumb

that is both a symbol of agreement and the request

for a ride, the two fingers held up that once meant

victory, then peace. But what was my mother saying

that day not long before her death -- her face tilted up

at me, her mouth falling open, wordless, just as

we open our mouths in church to take in the wafer,

meaning communion? What matters is context --

the side of the road, or that my mother wanted

something I still can't name: what, kneeling,

my face behind my hands, I might ask of God.

For more from the brilliant Trethewey (and Sarah M. Broom, author of The Yellow House), here's a conversation hosted by the National Book Foundation in early March, just before the world fell apart. From this event, I learned Trethewey was named by her father for Natasha Rostov. He was reading War and Peace at the time of her birth.


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