by Natasha Trethewey
Regents' Common Reader Awards
The Regents' Common Reader Awards provide an opportunity for individual chapters to organize and host a local event or activity around Bellocq’s Ophelia by Natasha Trethewey. Chapter members do not need to attend the convention to apply. Contact your Regent and you may receive $100 for your event or activity. View application guidelines.
Common Reader Convention Awards
Awards of up to $500 will be given at the international convention for critical essays or other genres of work that deal with the common reader. To be eligible, students indicate on the convention submission form that their work is in the common reader category (presentation type). View convention paper submission guidelines.
Bellocq’s Ophelia: Giving Voice to the Forgotten
by Carrie Fitzpatrick, 2011-2012 Service Committee Chair
In Millais’s painting, Ophelia dies face up,
eyes and mouth open as if caught in the gasp
of her last word or breath, flowers and reeds
growing out of the pond, floating on the surface
around her. The young woman who posed
lay in a bath for hours, shivering,
catching cold, perhaps imagining fish
tangling in her hair or nibbling a dark mole
raised upon her white skin. Ophelia’s final gaze
aims skyward, her palms curling open
as if she’s just said, Take me.
--excerpt from Bellocq’s Ophelia
Inspired by the photographs of Ernest J. Bellocq, Natasha Trethewey intimates the past in her volume of free verse, Bellocq’s Ophelia, which shares the fictional narrative of a young bi-racial prostitute from New Orleans in the early 1900s.
Reminiscent of John Everett Millais’s portrait of Ophelia, one of Bellocq’s photographs from 1912 provided Trethewey inspiration to establish connections between the literary Ophelia of Shakespeare and the illusory Ophelia of her collection. Reflecting the tragedy and sadness associated with her name, the evocative Ophelia shares her life story as a mulatto woman moving from Mississippi to New Orleans to make a living.
In Ophelia’s writing to her former teacher and close friend, Miss Constance Wright, we learn of her journey into prostitution as she describes her surroundings, customers, and fellow sex workers.
And then, in my borrowed gown
I went upstairs with the highest
He did not know to call me
Ophelia. (p. 14)
Otherworldly in subject matter and unique in vision, Trethewey’s small volume uses letters, diary entries, and historical photographs to create an intimate bond between the main character and the reader while addressing themes of identity, race, and social mores. Although tragic in circumstance, Ophelia is influenced by Bellocq’s work and begins a transformation. At first presented as an object to be looked at and through, Ophelia purchases a Kodak camera, learns from Bellocq’s photography, and re-envisions her self.
I thrill to the magic of it—silver
crystals like constellations of stars arranging on film. In the negative
the whole world reverse, my black
white, my skin blackened to pitch.
I said, thinking of what I’ve tried
to hide. (p. 43)
Interestingly, the real Bellocq was a commercial photographer during the early 1900s who earned his living taking photographic records of landmarks and machinery for local companies. However, he is most well known for his photographic series of the prostitutes working in the “octoroon” brothels of Storyville, the New Orleans’ legalized red light district of about 1910-1912. He paid the prostitutes to take their pictures, and it is believed that the photographs were never meant for public distribution. Bellocq’s glass negatives were found by Lee Friedlander, who printed them for the Museum of Modern Art. Notably, in reflecting on the traditional portraits of women from the 1900s, both rigid and formal in pose, Bellocq’s nude photographs create striking contrasts…not so much for the nudity as the natural expressions of the women in the images as they drink, talk, and play. Trethewey saw the portraits of one of the unknown fair-skinned black women gazing defiantly into the lens, named her, and gave her a voice.
In an interview with Charles Rowell for the Journal of Contemporary African-American Poetry (2004), Trethewey discusses her interest with untold stories and unheard voices from the past as she talks about an earlier collection of poetry, Domestic Work (2000):
I think I’ve been concerned with what I have noticed to be the erasures of history for a very long time. Those stories often left to silence or oblivion, the gaps within the stories that we are told, both in the larger public historical records and in our family histories as well, the stories within families that people don’t talk about, the things that are kept hushed. And so, I’ve always been interested in those contentions between public and cultural memory, larger history and private or family memory and stories. And so I do seek to restore or to recover those subjugated narratives. (p. 1023)
Bellocq’s Ophelia is a slim text full of memorable images and contemplative poetry. The book gives some understanding into what it must feel like to be regarded with an identity assigned to you, a persona constructed by society, an otherness not quite your own.
Natasha Trethewey has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines. Her body of work also includes Native Guard (2006), Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf (2010), and Thrall (to be published in 2012). She was the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the 2008 Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts for Poetry. She currently works as an assistant professor of English, poetry, and creative writing at Emory University in Decatur, Georgia.