by Natasha Trethewey
Natasha’s Trethewey’s poem “Myth” astonished me the first time I read it in her book Native Guard—not just for its cautious intimacy or sense of form, but because I had initially read it so casually I didn’t register that the poem had reversed itself until I came to the very last line. My frustration with my capabilities as a reader soon yielded to pleasure as I compared the lines backwards from the asterisk at the poem’s center, where the poem becomes a palindrome writ large, underscoring the repeating cycle of the speaker’s grief. The turn at the center of the poem functions as a mirror—both in terms of form and content.
The title “Myth” applies most directly to the invocation of the Greek deity Erebus, the personification of shadow and darkness. In Greek literature, Erebus also refers to the dark Limbo the dead must pass through to reach Hades, the underworld. In Trethewey’s poem, Erebus figures as the dream-like “rift” between sleeping and waking in which the speaker is able to imagine the beloved as alive. (Like several of the poems in Native Guard, this poem invokes the author’s mother, who was fatally shot by Trethewey’s abusive stepfather.) Visiting the dead in dreams and waking to realize that they are gone is a familiar syndrome to those of us who have lost parents or loved ones. It is the sudden feeling of loss we know from the story of Orpheus, who, when leading his wife Eurydice back to Earth from the underworld, turned to look back at her at hell’s entrance only to see her slip away back into that darkness forever. “Myth” suggests this Orphic “turning”: “So I try taking / you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning, / my eyes open, I find you do not follow.”
What I find remarkable about this poem is how this turn is formally achieved through repetition and changes in punctuation. The first half of the poem is somewhat languid in its syntax, relying on a series of commas to flow from one idea to the next. When the speaker drifts into morning with her “eyes open” in stanza three, she realizes that she has to abandon the idea that the beloved is alive, a sentiment made more stark by its frequency (“this constant forsaking”) and its repetition within the poem (the mirrored line at the beginning of stanza four). Yet here, directly after the asterisk marking the turn, one realizes that the second half of the poem isn’t merely a chiral image of the first half. Though the lines and rhymes are repeated in reverse, the punctuation has changed: “Again and again, this constant forsaking: / my eyes open, I find you do not follow.” The addition of the colon here renders new meaning—the act of opening one’s eyes becomes the equivalent of actively “forsaking” the beloved, abandoning her. Another shift in syntax occurs in the third line of this stanza, “You back into morning,” suggesting the beloved walks away from the speaker when she wakes, reversing her steps and tiredly “turning” back into the underworld. The shorter sentences and frequent end-stops in the second half of the poem emphasize the factuality and finality of the beloved’s death: “But in dreams you live. So I try taking, / not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow.” Awake, the speaker must bluntly confront her loss and acknowledge the desire to repeat the dream that exhausts the beloved. Here, the space between sleeping and waking becomes a prison of the speaker’s own making, and the interjected phrase “—still, trying—” casts Erebus as a place of desperate return rather than memorial. This shift in tone and syntax lends the final line “I was asleep while you were dying” new weight, repeating the speaker’s guilt at being absent but also revealing her guilt over repeating this psychological cycle.
At the center of the poem, surrounded by white space, is the curious asterisk. Is it a section break? An eye opening? A sun rising? A gunshot? The asterisk certainly divides the poem into two distinct sections, but its placement invites typographical associations as well. To my eye, it conjures a footnote—something left unsaid in the main text but also always in deep conversation with it. The purgatorial space between conscious loss and unconscious fantasy created in the poem suggests this kind of subtextual conversation. Like a tree, this poem’s structure is half underground, and the asterisk marks the place from which the speaker’s guilt and desire both grow.
The shift in consciousness and meaning in “Myth” is similar to the change in consciousness that occurs at a sonnet’s turn, where question yields to answer, call yields to response, or observation yields to epiphany. But rather than simply marking this shift, the movement of poem enacts the turn literally. In an interview with Jonathan Fink in Panhandler magazine, Trethewey reflects:
I had gotten to the end of the first section of the poem and thought, “Is this where it ends?” and I don’t know what…led me to look at the poem backwards. I wasn’t going there when I started it, but I got to what I thought was the end, but it was not the end, it was a hinge instead and I did not know what the other side of the hinge was, that it was actually a mirror image….[T]he poem can indeed enact exactly what I was trying to convey. So not simply that the words would suggest it, but that the movement could enact that movement of descending and then returning. (23)
This is my favorite kind of poem—one that does what it says. Like Orpheus, the poem ascends into the light of day and turns on its heel. The descent into and ascent from the dreaming underworld is evident in the movement of the poem across the “rift” of white space at its center. Furthermore, repeating the lines in a backwards fashion becomes a literal example of the speaker’s “constant forsaking”; the language itself repeats the cycle of fantasy and loss. My initial reading of the poem (let’s face it, my utter density upon first reading the poem) speaks to the poem’s organic sense of movement: the shift in tone seems so natural that I hear an echo of Trethewey’s language after the turn rather than an outright litany.
Susan B.A. Somers-Willett is the author of two award-winning books of poetry, Quiver and Roam, and a book of criticism, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry. Her writing has been featured by several journals including The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poets & Writers, and The New Yorker. Her collaborative documentary poetry series “Women of Troy” aired on PRI and BBC radio affiliates and received a 2010 Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media. She is an Assistant Professor of creative writing and poetics at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Visit her at www.susansw.com.