Following up her debut, Domestic Work
(2000), which included a number of historical monologues, Tretheway's short sophomore effort is a quiet collection of poems in the persona of a "very white-skinned black woman mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon," a prostitute in New Orleans just before WWI. The Bellocq of the title is E.J., the Toulouse-Lautrec–like photographer whose Storyville prostitute portraits, brought out from oblivion by Lee Friedlander, inspired Louis Malle's 1978 film Pretty Baby—and now this sequence. A stanza that begins "There are indeed all sorts of men/ who visit here" predictably yet elegantly ends "And then there are those,/ of course, whose desires I cannot commit/ to paper." Yet this is not generally a sentimentalized account of a conventional subject. Much more like Bellocq's artless, sympathetic and gorgeous portraits are lines like these, describing the "girls": "They like best, as I do, the regular meals, warm/ from the cooks in our own kitchen, the clean/ indoor toilet and hot-water bath." While the trend of the first-person historical novel (think Wittgenstein's Nephew
as much as Corelli's Mandolin) has passed, the best poems here fulfill the genre's mandate to spice up the period piece with intellectual frisson; Tretheway goes two-for-two by successfully taking on the poetically dubious task of working from art and making it signify anew. (Apr.)
Forecast:Despite the book's brevity, expect review attention, as well as short items in glossies profiling Tretheway with the requisite provocative Bellocq reproductions. National Poetry Month reviewers wanting to take stock of recent poetry by African-American women might place this book alongside Harryette Mullen's
Sleeping with the Dictionary (Forecasts, Dec. 17, 2001) and Elizabeth Alexander's
Antebellum Dream Book (published last year).