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.