In honor of National Poetry Month, Living on Earth presents the work of some of our nation’s outstanding poets. This week, we’ll hear from 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, Natasha Trethewey, professor of English at Emory University. She reads her poem “Monument” and talks about what inspires her to write verse.
YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young. Later this month, we’ll mark the 40th Earth Day—and April, as you may know, is also National Poetry Month. The natural world has been a favorite theme for poets over the centuries—and it still is.
TRETHEWAY: I’m Natasha Tretheway, and I began writing poems on long trips as a child. My father driving in the front seat and my stepmother beside him trying to entertain me when I got bored would say to me, ‘Why don’t you write poems about what you see outside of your window?’
And those are some of the earliest poems I began to write, and I suppose that driving through Louisiana and Mississippi what I was seeing outside of my window was the natural world speeding by. All those pine trees and the piney woods, also the swampy marshlands around New Orleans.
I think that the job of poets and poetry is to record the cultural memory of a people. And certainly our relationship to an engagement with the natural is part of that.
This is “Monument”:
Today the ants are busy
beside my front steps, weaving
in and out of the hill they’re building.
I watch them emerge and—
like everything I’ve forgotten—disappear
into the subterranean, a world
made by displacement. In the cemetery
last June, I circled, lost—
weeds and grass grown up all around—
the landscape blurred and waving.
At my mother’s grave, ants streamed in
and out like arteries, a tiny hill rising
above her untended plot. Bit by bit,
red dirt piled up, spread
like a rash on the grass; I watched a long time
the ants’ determined work,
how they brought up soil
of which she will be part,
and piled it before me. Believe me when I say
I’ve tried not to begrudge them
their industry, this reminder of what
I haven’t done. Even now,
the mound is a blister on my heart,
a red and humming swarm.
I began writing this poem because I saw the ants building that ant mound outside of my apartment many years ago and it reminded me of a visit to my mother’s grave in which I’d also seen ants building a mound. One of the things that excited me about making the connection between those two things was the poems’ title.
Looking up the mound in my dictionary I learned that a mound is also a monument, and so there those ants were building the monument that I had not erected on my mother’s grave. They were tending to a kind of remembrance that I had neglected to do.
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