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Bellocq's Ophelia: Poems Paperback – April 1, 2002

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 64 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press (April 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555973590
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555973599
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 0.2 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 0.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #87,611 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Following up her debut, Domestic Work (2000), which included a number of historical monologues, Tretheway's short sophomore effort is a quiet collection of poems in the persona of a "very white-skinned black woman mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon," a prostitute in New Orleans just before WWI. The Bellocq of the title is E.J., the Toulouse-Lautrec-like photographer whose Storyville prostitute portraits, brought out from oblivion by Lee Friedlander, inspired Louis Malle's 1978 film Pretty Baby and now this sequence. A stanza that begins "There are indeed all sorts of men who visit here" predictably yet elegantly ends "And then there are those, of course, whose desires I cannot commit to paper." Yet this is not generally a sentimentalized account of a conventional subject. Much more like Bellocq's artless, sympathetic and gorgeous portraits are lines like these, describing the "girls": "They like best, as I do, the regular meals, warm from the cooks in our own kitchen, the clean indoor toilet and hot-water bath." While the trend of the first-person historical novel (think Wittgenstein's Nephew as much as Corelli's Mandolin) has passed, the best poems here fulfill the genre's mandate to spice up the period piece with intellectual frisson; Tretheway goes two-for-two by successfully taking on the poetically dubious task of working from art and making it signify anew. (Apr.)Forecast: Despite the book's brevity, expect review attention, as well as short items in glossies profiling Tretheway with the requisite provocative Bellocq reproductions. National Poetry Month reviewers wanting to take stock of recent poetry by African-American women might place this book alongside Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary (Forecasts, Dec. 17, 2001) and Elizabeth Alexander's Antebellum Dream Book (published last year).

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Trethewey carries forward the lyric musings on black women's lives that she began in her arresting debut, Domestic Work (2000). Photographs served as inspiration there; here Trethewey fashions a one-woman monologue in response to a famous series of early-twentieth-century photographs taken by E. J. Bellocq in Storyville, New Orleans' red-light district. Portraits of an unnamed light-skinned black woman who stares into the lens with assured defiance galvanized Trethewey, who dubs her Ophelia and allows her to speak. As Ophelia writes eloquently restrained and resolute letters to a favorite teacher and tells the heartbreaking story of her failed search for respectable employment and her rescue from hunger and homelessness by a kind and patient madame, Trethewey creates a persona who belies the implied tragedy of her name by focusing her keen intellect on survival and, ultimately, taking control of the camera and her life. Like Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination [BKL Ja 1 & 15 01] and Adrienne Rich's lean but commanding poems, Trethewey's spare yet plangent verse portrait illuminates a soul ennobled in her quiet battle with injustice. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

More About the Author

Natasha Trethewey is the author of two previously published collections, Belloq's Ophelia and Domestic Work. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, she was the recipient of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Grolier Poetry Prize, and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches creative writing at Emory University.

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on November 10, 2002
Format: Paperback
Bellocq's Ophelia by Natasha Trethewey is a complete novel told in a series of verses inspired by the early 1900 E. J. Bellocq photographs of prostitutes in the red-light district of new Orleans. Bellocq's Ophelia is the imaginative and original tale of a woman who's brothel Madame tells her to act like statue on display for the male patrons of the establishment. Bellocq - April 1911: There comes a quiet man now to my room--/Papa Bellocq, his camera on his back./He wants nothing, he says, but to take me/as I would arrange myself, fully clothed--/a brooch at my throat, my white hat angled/just so--or not, the smooth map of my flesh/awash in afternoon light. In my rom/everything's a prop for his composition--/brass spittoon in the corner, the silver/mirror, brush and comb of my toilette./I try to pose as I think he would like--shy/at first, then bolder. I'm not so foolish/that I don't know this photograph we make/will bear the stamp of his name, not mine.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By G. Messersmith VINE VOICE on June 23, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As has already been stated this book of poems is based off of photographs of light skinned African American women working as prostitutes in New Orleans around 1912. These photographs were taken by a man named Bellocq. Each poem connects to the same woman, Ophelia, and tells a story. Although each poem could stand alone they read beautifully together. Trethewey makes us ask what we can really get from a photograph. Can we know a person from pictures of them? Or is it a false front always put forward in a photo? Whatever conclusion you come to you will want to read and re-read this brief book of poems over and over again.

The narrative voice Trethewey uses is first person through a series of letters. These are so beautiful and moving I simply cannot express it here in this review. Below is a sample of what I'm talking about:

At last we are near
breaking the season, shedding
our coats, the gray husk

of winter. Each tree
trembles with new leaves, tiny
blossoms, the flashy

dress of spring. I am
aware now of its coming
as I've never been -

the wet grass throbbing
with crickets, insistent, keen
as desire. Now,

I feel what trees must -
budding, green sheaths splitting - skin
that no longer fits.

It is obvious from this book of poetry why Trethewey was Poet Laureate. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel said it best, “More than mere photographs, these are love letters that open like windows onto the temple of Aphrodite. Women are free to step into and out of the picture frame to learn firsthand from these religious adepts.”
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By M. S. Clay on July 25, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Great book of poems told from the point of view of a Storyville prostitute at the turn of last century New Orleans. "Ophelia," a country girl who is part black, has fled her backwater small town to find work as a schoolteacher in NOLA. Failing that (she can't get hired because she is part black), she falls into prostitution. Eventually she runs into the fabled photographer E. J. Bellocq (Storyville Portraits, MOMA, 1973 - Bellocq's c. 1900 8x10 glass plate negs were discovered in NOLA and bought and published by photographer Lee Friedlander). Natasha Trethewey is very, very good. You feel you are there. Describes NOLA and life in a "house of ill repute" very believably.
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Natasha Trethewey's poetry is always earthy and sophisticated all at once. In Bellocq's Ophelia she gives voice to the imagery of a New Orleans prostitute, a collage of the women seen in Bellocq's remarkable early twentieth century photographs. Telling a complex story in poetry, Ms Trethewey transcends Ophelia's specific situation and makes us look at the sad trajectory of a life that, like so many, took a different course than intended. Her skill as a poet makes it easy to understand why she was chosen as US Poet Laureate. Easily one of my favorite books of poetry. Highly recommended.The Last of the Pascagoula
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