Poet Visits Hurricane-Ravaged Birthplace

May 12, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Finally, another in our occasional series on poets and poetry. Tonight, Natasha Trethewey, a professor of writing at Emory University and author of three volumes of poetry. Her new collection is called “Native Guard.”

NATASHA TRETHEWEY, Poet: My name is Natasha Trethewey, and I was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966, exactly 100 years to the day that Mississippi celebrated the first Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1866.

Coming home

This is my first trip back to Gulfport since Hurricane Katrina. It's been over a year since I've seen the place, and it's odd to come back here after having written this book, seeing the places that I was trying to elegize years ago when I first started working on these poems, in a very figurative sense, because I was distant from these places, not that these places were actually gone.

And now, as I walk around here today, I realize that those poems that I wrote have become quite literal, that Gulfport really is destroyed, and so many of those places that I connect to my childhood and growing up are no longer here.

When I was born here in Gulfport in 1966, my parents' interracial marriage was still illegal and it was very hard to drive around town with my parents, to be out in public with my parents.

Ship Island

GULFPORT RESIDENT: Good morning, ma'am. It's going to be a great day out there on Ship Island.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: "Theories of Time and Space":

Bring only

what you must carry -- tome of memory,
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph -- who you were --
will be waiting when you return.

We're going to Ship Island, the home of Fort Massachusetts, which is just off the coast of Gulfport, Mississippi, my hometown. We're going out there to try to remember the Louisiana Native Guards, who were the first officially sanctioned regiment of African American soldiers, union soldiers in the Civil War, who were stationed at the island.

I used to come out here every Fourth of July as a child to picnic and to swim on the island, to tour the fort and wander through it. And all of that time, I never knew anything about the presence of black soldiers on the island. And so, for me, this was a way of trying to tell another history, a lost or a forgotten or a little-known history about these black soldiers who played an important part in American history.

Forgotten or little-known history

"Elegy for the Native Guards":

We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead
trailing the boat--streamers, noisy fanfare--
all the way to Ship Island. What we see
first is the fort, its roof of grass a lee--
half reminder of the men who served there--
a weathered monument to some of the dead.

Inside we follow the ranger, hurried
though we are to get to the beach. He tells
of graves lost in the Gulf, the island split
in half when Hurricane Camille hit,
shows us casemates, cannons, the store that sells
souvenirs, tokens of history long buried.

The Native Guards

The Daughters of the Confederacy
has placed a plaque here, at the fort's entrance--
each Confederate soldier's name raised hard
in bronze; no names carved for the Native Guards--
2nd regiment, Union men, black phalanx.
What is monument to their legacy?

All the grave markers, all the crude headstones--
water--lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
Only the fort remains, near forty feet high
round, unfinished, half-open to the sky,
the elements--wind, rain--God's deliberate eye.

RAY SUAREZ: More on the poetry of Natasha Trethewey and on our poetry project can be found on our Web site at