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