cover image Domestic Work

Domestic Work

Natasha Trethewey. Graywolf Press, $14 (58pp) ISBN 978-1-55597-309-4

With poems based on photographs of African-Americans at work in the pre-civil rights era 20th-century America (not included), Trethewey's fine first collection functions as near-social documentary. In tableaux like ""These Photographs"" and ""Signs, Oakvale, Mississippi, 1941,"" Trethewey evenly takes up the difficult task of preserving, and sometimes speculating upon, the people and conditions of the mostly Southern, mostly black working class. The sonnets, triplets and flush-left free verse she employs give the work an understated distance, and Trethewey's relatively spare language allows the characters, from factory and dock workers to homemakers, to take on fluid, present-tense movement: ""Her lips tighten speaking/ of quitting time when/ the colored women filed out slowly/ to have their purses checked,/ the insides laid open and exposed/ by the boss's hand"" (""Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956""). When Trethewey, a member of the Dark Room Collective (a group of young African-American writers including Thomas Sayers Ellis, Kevin Young and Janice Lowe), turns midway through the book to matters of family and autobiography, the book loses some momentum. But when the speaker comments on the actions of others, as in ""At the Station,"" the poems correspondingly deepen: ""Come back. She won't. Each/ glowing light dims/ the farther it moves from reach,// the train pulling clean/ out of the station. The woman sits/ facing where she's been.// She's chosen her place with care--/ each window another eye, another/ way of seeing what's back there."" Trethewey's work follows in the wake of history and memory, tracing their combined effect on her speaker and subjects, and working to recover and preserve vitally local histories. (Sept.)