Yesterday was officially the last day of National Poetry Month, but we at the Library celebrate poetry all year round! And we’re excited to announce the final feature in “The Poetry of Home,” our online collaboration with The Washington Post. The series kicked off three Fridays ago by featuring our current Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, and followed with past laureates Robert Pinsky and Juan Felipe Herrera.
Natasha Trethewey, U.S. Poet Laureate from 2012-2014, concludes the series with a video featuring her poem “Housekeeping.” Natasha, speaking from her home office, begins by talking about missing “the slower ways” of communicating, like sending letters in the mail, and cooking a lot—which she says has kept her sane.
She also talks about reading poetry right now and brings up Ellen Bryant Voigt’s 1996 collection Kyrie, a book-length exploration of the 1918 influenza epidemic. As Natasha says, it gives her a sense of how people “went though . . . and came through something very similar, in terms of our distance and isolation and fear, with a measure of hope.” It’s worth noting that our online Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature features a recording of Voigt reading shortly after Kyrie was published, as Voigt was one of the 1997 Witter Bynner Fellows selected by Robert Pinsky during his laureateship (Voigt’s reading starts at 43:22).
Natasha concludes the video by reading “Housekeeping,” a poem from her debut collection of poems. As she says, the poem—which she wrote over 20 years ago—speaks to a very different way of “occupying our homes” than we are currently experiencing. “Housekeeping” is set in Natasha’s childhood home in small-town Mississippi, while her father was away in the Canadian Navy. And yet, from that she talks about “Housekeeping” as exploring “the way that you long for some kind of connection to people who are far away from you,” which could not be more relevant right now.
The poem begins, “We mourn the broken things,” and follows with a catalog of the everyday items and activities that capture life at home, waiting and wishing and, as Natasha says, “managing our household as best we could back then.” The poem shows us the beauty and strength and poignancy in this work, even as it captures a sense of precariousness. Reading it now, I think it reverberates with the past and speaks directly to the reality so many now face, every day—and this ability to time travel is a hallmark of Trethewey’s poetry.
I want to end by saying how meaningful I found the series—not only for the ways Natasha and our other laureates spoke of this moment and their poems, but also for the animations of their poems, created by the great team at The Washington Post. All four poems are brought to life. With “Housekeeping,” it’s the simple and haunting image of mailbox after mailbox, opening . . .
Thank you to Ron Charles, Phoebe Connelly, and everyone at The Washington Post, and thank you to our laureates for a compelling new experience that shows us why we need poets and poems right now to help us make sense of home.