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Domestic Work: Poems Paperback – August 1, 2000
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From Publishers Weekly
With poems based on photographs of African-Americans at work in the pre-civil rights era 20th-century America (not included), Trethewey's fine first collection functions as near-social documentary. In tableaux like "These Photographs" and "Signs, Oakvale, Mississippi, 1941," Trethewey evenly takes up the difficult task of preserving, and sometimes speculating upon, the people and conditions of the mostly Southern, mostly black working class. The sonnets, triplets and flush-left free verse she employs give the work an understated distance, and Trethewey's relatively spare language allows the characters, from factory and dock workers to homemakers, to take on fluid, present-tense movement: "Her lips tighten speaking/ of quitting time when/ the colored women filed out slowly/ to have their purses checked,/ the insides laid open and exposed/ by the boss's hand" ("Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956"). When Trethewey, a member of the Dark Room Collective (a group of young African-American writers including Thomas Sayers Ellis, Kevin Young and Janice Lowe), turns midway through the book to matters of family and autobiography, the book loses some momentum. But when the speaker comments on the actions of others, as in "At the Station," the poems correspondingly deepen: "Come back. She won't. Each/ glowing light dims/ the farther it moves from reach,// the train pulling clean/ out of the station. The woman sits/ facing where she's been.// She's chosen her place with careA/ each window another eye, another/ way of seeing what's back there." Trethewey's work follows in the wake of history and memory, tracing their combined effect on her speaker and subjects, and working to recover and preserve vitally local histories. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
Trethewey's verse explores the various forms of labor-from the men on the docks to the women employed as domestics. Of a photograph of washerwomen taken by Clifton Johnson in 1902, Trethewey writes: "But in this photograph, / women do not smile, / their lips a steady line / connecting each quiet face. / They walk the road toward home, / a week's worth of take-in laundry / balanced on their heads / lightly as church hats. Shaded / by their loads, they do not squint, / their ready gaze through him, / to me, straight ahead." Her remembrances of her own family are touching. In "Cameo," she recalls peering out from her bed as a child to watch her mother dress by the light of an oil lamp and in "Hot Combs" how the heat in the kitchen made her mother "glow" when she pulled combs from the fire to dress her hair, "her face made strangely beautiful / as only suffering can do." Her father, who loved reading and scholarship and had "gentle hands," had been an amateur boxer who first took up the sport while still a boy and later "turned that anger into a prize." From him she learned that "living meant suffering, loss" and that "really living meant taking risks" ("Amateur Fighter"). The plain language and surface simplicity of these poems is deceptive. Their insights into the history and experience of black Americans contain a profound message for all of us.A noteworthy debut by a remarkable young poet -- Copyright © 2000 Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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These poems of Natasha Trethewey's, though, really speak to me. After hearing an interview with the author my interest was picqued, and so I bought her Native Guard book. I enjoy the voices and points of view that I hear in those poems, but these in Domestic Work are very poignant. I can imagine a way of life that I know very little about, other than stories my great-grandmother told me when I was a little girl. Trethewey's imagery is superb - she creates portraits with her words, and then gives us a little more by telling us what SHE sees these characters doing right before and after this snapshot of the lives they lead. This book goes straight to the top of my (VERY short) poetry list.
Natasha Trethewey, with her poetry, snapped a photo of the thoughts in my mind and the feelings in my heart. She also wrote about my mother's masectomy. I have heard no one describe how it felt to see my mother pin bundled handkerchiefs inside her dress to appear as her missing breast. My mother was not a complainer. Whatever she felt after that operation she did not share. She held it inside of her heart. I'm sure she must have cried at night in her pillow. She would never have wanted to worry my father. Indeed, Natasha Trethewey writes a memorable book of poetry. dOMESTIC WORK by Natasha Trethewey is a winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize.
Trethewey’s inspiration for the collection can be found in the poem, “Domestic Work” which empowers by stating, “Let’s make a change, girl.” As the poem progresses, she moves through the daily tasks of a maid. She describes how cleaning someone else’s house is not satisfying because she is not working for herself. Her religious, yet simple, syntax, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” and “Nearer my God to thee…” creates a mocking tone because she makes it seem as if she is helping others get closer to God, yet is not doing so for herself.
Just as “Domestic Work” focuses on the daily lives of African American women, “Housekeeping” also focuses on a historical aspect of life as an African American woman. Trethewey uses syntax that appeals to the reader’s memories of childhood. I can place myself within the poem as she uses words such as “fallen pecans,” “keep neck bones for soup,” and “beating rugs against the house.” All of these images provide the reader with a glance into a hard-working woman’s life.
Trethewey focuses on topics that can be categorized under domestic work, yet she approaches the topic with an undeniable elegance. Although she is writing about a time when times were difficult she provides an optimism to which readers can connect.