Pushcart 2014 (Poetry): Natasha Trethewey: Enlightenment” from Virginia Quarterly Review Spring 2012

In the portrait of Jefferson that hangs
         at Monticello, he is rendered two-toned:
his forehead white with illumination—

a lit bulb—the rest of his face in shadow,
         darkened as if the artist meant to contrast
his bright knowledge, its dark subtext.

This is a great poem to start with for a few reasons: it’s available online; it’s written by current Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey so there’s a great deal of information available about it; I found it quite powerful in content and delivery; and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve had some help from my ModPo friends.

The poem’s setting is her visit to Monticello with her father; it’s “about” (I always hate to use that term; it’s about what happens between page and brain, which may be different things for me, you, Trethewey and someone else) her relationship with her poet-father, about race (she’s biracial; her father’s white, her mother black), and about Thomas Jefferson. She refers to a painting of Jefferson in Monticello; I think the portrait above might be the one she’s referring to, with the bright forehead over a darker face (light and dark, how interesting). She points out how both Jefferson and her father seem to have intellectual ideas that may not quite be reflected in their lives. Her father was for years quite adamant that Jefferson could not have fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. Whether Heming’s race increased the unacceptability of that relationship in his eyes is unclear to me; Trethewey uses the poem to point out how the tourist conversations held in the halls of Monticello changed, following scientific and historic resolution of the question, from denial to looking for an explanation – “How white was she?” – and recounts her relationship with her father (who, let’s remember, married a black woman) through that lens.

I came away from this poem with two lines of inquiry beyond the poem itself. First, in relation to the unofficial “theme” I’ve sensed in the Pushcart analogy so far, at a point only 5 or 6 entries in, is truth. Science and historical research may have revealed the truth about Jefferson; I understand the interest on the part of the family members (both families) and the academic interest (no researcher wants to be proved wrong, and they all want to put forth the final, definitive word) but what I find most interesting is how hotly the question is debated by those with really no skin in the game (though I suppose we all have “skin” in the game, in one way or another, don’t we). I haven’t read historian/law professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s definitive book on the issue, but I have no trouble believing the conclusions (and by the way, Sally Hemings herself was the product of a master-slave coupling; her father was Jefferson’s father-in-law, in fact, making her and his wife half-sisters); once you decide to own people, morality – immorality – is, to adapt the quip often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, a matter of degree. The primary author of the Declaration of Independence – “…all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights” (in the rough draft) owned his wife’s half-sister, and slept with her repeatedly (Dr. Gordon-Reed, a black woman, feels the evidence indicates it was not rape). Light and dark, indeed. For that matter, there’s the entire issue of associating light with good and dark with bad: The Enlightenment, the Dark Ages…is it even possible to psychologically dissociate the benefits of sunlight/the dangers of the night from the subliminal message transmitted by the pigmentation of skin?

The other issue I found interesting was Trethewey’s use of “Enlightenment” as a departure point. This brought to mind a reading from a philosophy course I took last Fall, The Modern and Postmodern. In the period during and following WWII, Horkheimer and Adorno became rather down on The Enlightenment:

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. Enlightenment’s program was the disenchantment of the world.
…For enlightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion….Enlightenment is totalitarian.
…Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. He knows them to the extent that he can manipulate them…. Under the leveling rule of abstraction, which makes everything in nature repeatable, and of industry, for which abstraction prepared the way, the liberated finally themselves become the “herd” (Trupp), which Hegel identified as the outcome of enlightenment.

As Professor Michael Roth (who, when he’s not teaching MOOCs, is the President of Wesleyan University) put it in his lecture, “Attempts at liberation wind up being steps in our own oppression.”

As for the poem itself, a few things strike me about the language. Ending the first line with “hangs” is an interesting touch; I’m reminded of WCW’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” where so much depends on the word “depends” at the end of the first line. “Hangs” has its executionary connotation as well (and a particularly vicious connotation in conjunction with race), leading me to wonder if it is Jefferson, Trethewey’s father, the longstanding issue, or the beautiful ruin of delusion that is being “hanged” here. The phrase “beautiful ruin” packs a similar punch. Putting “his bright knowledge, its dark subtext” in one balanced, symmetrical line emphasizes the contrast between the light and dark. “That was years ago” functions as a turning point, yet the issues are, for Trethewey, pretty much the same, reflected through strangers on the tour trying to rationalize Jefferson’s affair – a moving outward of a very personal pain. Yet she returns inward for the ending of the poem, ending, referring again to her father, and their separation: “I’ll head around to the back”. The joke itself divides them -“renders” them – and she follows all that with the sadly symmetrical phrase “other to each other.” Symmetry – opposites, dark and light, black and white, slave and free, did he or didn’t he – play a crucial role, as does the very concept of light and dark, both in terms of good and bad, enlightened and not, what is illuminated and what is in the shadows.

I’ve been discussing this poem (and hope to do the same with the rest of the Pushcart poetry) with some of my ModPo compatriots on the still-active message boards there (one of the continuing benefits of the MOOC that never ends) and they’ve brought out some great points; I’m hoping they’ll be by to add some words of wisdom in the comment – because if there’s one thing we learned in ModPo, it’s the value of the “wisdom in the room”. Even, maybe especially, when it’s a virtual room.


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