Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: An Analysis of the Remembrance of History in “Pilgrimage”

Natasha Trethewey often writes about the relationship we have with the past, a shared history that many wish to remember and forget at the same time. This internal conflict of memory presents itself throughout “Pilgrimage” in unexpected contrasts, lugubrious imagery, and glaring reminders of the fact that the powerful in society have the privilege of choosing what version of history the nation publicly recalls. Throughout the poem, Trethewey utilizes weighty and often uncomfortable sensations of deadliness, entrapment, and burial as well as personal inclusion in “Pilgrimage” to stress that the way people memorialize Southern history goes beyond a matter of personal choice and appreciation; for those that have less of a say in the national narrative, this remembrance extends into their ability to reclaim the valid experiences of their ancestors whom the historical events regularly negatively affected. This tactic of morbidity advances the authors aim of emphasizing the need to reexamine how people remember the past.

Almost instantly, Trethewey takes iconic imagery and juxtaposes it in a way that evokes a creeping feeling of unexpected bereavement and death. The Mississippi River, often invoked in poetry and literature as a symbol of energy, industry, and tradition, becomes a “graveyard / for skeletons of sunken riverboats” (2-3). In truth, many riverboats do rest at the bottom of the gargantuan river. However, in forcing an acknowledgement of this atypical aspect of the Mississippi as opposed to imagining it in a Mark Twain fashion, Trethewey highlights how facets of the South that people often speak about with admiration can also hide destruction under their surfaces. In keeping with stark comparisons, the poet writes of the “old mansions… draped / in flowers” (30-31), which brings to mind an image of grand plantation houses, and then surprisingly inserts “—funereal—” (31). Trethewey conjures this lovely picturesque and pastoral scene which she then jolts with the dashes into an alternate yet realistic reality. The most striking aspect of this pairing is its overtness when one reverses the imagery; when one reads of flowers one typically does not immediately connect them with funerals, but if one reads of funerals, flowers would likely come to mind. On a broader scope and in connection with the themes of “Pilgrimage” and other Trethewey poems such as “Elegy for the Native Guard” and “Enlightenment”, this reversal also works in a similar way with the South and slavery. If “South” is presented first, slavery is not necessarily the primary association that one would make, but if “slavery” comes first, one will very likely initially associate it with the South. Thus, the context in which we speak about history influences how we think about history. The most apparent contrast Trethewey makes appears in the middle of the poem when she pairs the season of spring with “mingl[ing] / with the dead” (20, 22). Spring traditionally brings about new life. Plants bloom, animals are born, and the weather warms. Yet according to her, in Vicksburg at least, we mingle with the dead. Even when it looks like the circumstances surrounding how we interact with history improve and progress, there exists a side in which many harbor an affinity for these dead and what they represent, enough so that they willingly make a pilgrimage to encounter them.

While some enjoy and benefit from these interactions and remembrances, “Pilgrimage” also alludes to the weight felt by those who do not have as much of a say in how the past is memorialized as others. The poet speaks to this feeling when she describes sleeping in the old Confederate mansion and dreaming that “the ghost of history lies down beside me, // rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm” (36-37). As a woman of mixed heritage, Trethewey pinpoints and identifies with the uncomfortable and even violating feelings that come with being forced to accept a history that often leaves very little space for the experiences of those she descends from. The author’s personalization of the poem through the use of “me” and “I” statements demand that the reader recognize the reality of her position. One cannot separate Trethewey as both the author and the individual in the poem from the rectification with history that it demands because she herself must reconcile the differences in her writing and her life. Without her self-placement in the poem, “Pilgrimage” would simply reflect on race and history. With the me’s and I’s, Trethewey explains to the world that the entrapment in the crossroads of remembrance and dismissal is her history and that she will not allow others to deny the place of that narrative. The pressure of being surrounded by a shared history that one’s group often gets no share in defining would likely make one feel trapped. The “heavy arm” of the history of the South not only holds so much weight because of the historical events themselves, but also because of how people are expected to remember them. The recounting of the Civil War, slavery, reconstruction, and the civil rights movement often emphasize Southern perspectives because of the efforts made by Southern states and organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy to pass their versions as the true course of events. “Pilgrimage” serves as a reminder that people often fail to acknowledge this bias in “facts” or remember that every story has more than one side.

Along with drawing attention to the discomfort that revisiting a painful history can bring, the poem highlights the burial of certain aspects of history in favor of others when it discusses “a web of caves; // [that] must have seemed like catacombs” and the “woman sitting… // underground” (12-15). During the Battle of Vicksburg, the townspeople quite literally dug out and hid in caves underground to protect themselves from the Union advance and bombardment. When reading about this event, people often wonder what it must have felt like for those underground to fear for their lives without considering that the institution of slavery that most Vicksburg residents supported created terror in the lives of numerous blacks. Trethewey could have set the poem in a multitude of Southern cities or towns, but the choice of Vicksburg as well as the inclusion of this specific event in the town’s history force the recognition of this inconsistency in empathy when examining different narratives. This notion has come to light recently with the controversy surrounding the removal of confederate monuments. People will defend them in the name of the “virtuous traits” of the men they memorialize or the “historical value” of the events they remember, all the while leaving “underground” the unjust acts they committed or the disgraceful reasons the events occurred. Like icebergs, some true history is exposed above water, but the majority of and often the more important and dangerous truths lie beneath the surface. If we fail to acknowledge that the iceberg extends beyond what we can easily see, we risk the safety of the boat of society.

“Pilgrimage” brings to the forefront the dark side of Southern history through the presence of words like “grave,” “dead,” and “gray” and demands that everyone recognize the effects of a partial account of the past. Trethewey [AS8] knowingly personalizes “Pilgrimage” to draw attention to the crossroads of those who regularly contribute to the memorialization of the South and those who look beyond the surface to see the looming iceberg of the past; in doing so, she leaves the poem with a sense of feeling trapped in this middle ground. Because awareness of this in-between can create discomfort, people often attempt to “turn[], forgetting, from the past” (6) in the hopes that doing so will give it less force. However, this decision creates more issues than it solves in society and contributes to events like those that have recently surrounded the removal of Confederate monuments. Trethewey reminds us that various accounts of the past often get pushed underground in favor of others which can leave the experiences of certain groups out of the conversation and reinforce the silencing of their voices. These groups and their stories belong in the American narrative because they add perspective and bring us closer to a more truthful account of our shared history; if those that have the power in our nation fail to include them, they cheat everyone out of the verity of the past.

Symbolism and Destructive Attitudes in “Genus Narcissus”

Finding and picking a flower may be a plain and straightforward task for many, but Natasha Trethewey suggests a deeper consequence in her poem “Genus Narcissus.” Trethewey employs the many different metaphors of a daffodil in tracking the development of a girl through her childish beliefs and into adulthood. Trethewey describes the delusional foolishness of the narrator as a child by using an optimistic, lively, and clueless tone, and later her realization of her past narcissism through a pessimistic and gloomy tone. By creating a symbolic story about capturing daffodils, she asserts that the narrator was selfish towards her mother and only felt self-pride, and ultimately depicts the destructive nature of a narcissistic attitude.

Trethewey begins by establishing the daffodils as vibrant and attractive, a contrast to the stark environment that it is found in. The narrator begins by describing the environment as “dense with trees and shadow, creek-side.” The precise diction of “dense” refers not only to the sheer volume of trees that are on the road but also adds meaning to the tone of the first stanza overall. As dense also means physically heavy, it sets the preliminary tone of the poem as one that is heavy, gloomy, and somber. The usage of “shadow” as a singular instead of a plural noun reinforces this by mimicking a collective noun. In this sense, the entire scenery that is “creek-side” is viewed to be dark and overcast completely, not just fragmented areas of the ground that a plural noun “shadows” would refer to. In complete contrast to this darkness is the “yellow daffodils” that “lit” up the road, clearly referencing the idea of brightness and light, giving the daffodils an optimistic quality. The flowers are inviting, not only because of its light, but also due to the structure of the word itself. The softness of the semivowels in “yellow daffodils” from the “y,” “l,” “f,” “l,” and “s” consonants describe the flowers as less harsh and therefore more approachable than the shadowy road itself. Tretheway then strengthens this juxtaposition by utilizing a line break after introducing the daffodils. The next stanza begins with “bright against winter’s last gray days.” The assonance of the “ay” sound and its relative closeness to the “a” in “last” elongate the last three words of the line. As a result, they phonetically envelop the opening image, and therefore physically encompass the scene as a whole, illustrating its overall gloominess. The daffodils, now established as the sole, concentrated, bright object of the image, then have added attention and importance when placed in front of a somber tone in the background.

The narrator herself is characterized as unaware and selfish by collecting the daffodils, and Tretheway hints at an inauspicious tone that may stem from this behavior. Even though the narrator concludes that she “must have known they grew wild,” she still decides to take the daffodils because she “thought no harm in taking them.” The usage of “thought” instead of “was” implies an inherent conflict between the narrator’s belief and the actual being, and is an ominous foreshadowing for the later “harm” that will arise in taking the flowers. Evidently, the narrator is unaware of the consequences of taking the daffodil. Furthermore, the increase of syllables in the next two lines—a shift from lines with 8-9 syllables to lines with 11-12 syllables—reinforces the statement that she took “as many as [she] could hold.” She clearly takes a substantial amount of flowers. The narrator describes this endeavor as a simple “gathering” of objects, as if she were gathering branches or seashells. But she does not realize the true meaning behind her actions: she is killing flowers. By placing them “in a jar” afterwards, she artificially confines the flowers in an unnatural enclosure, stripping the flowers of their “wild” quality unknowingly. The overall tone of the section is matter-of-fact and tracks the narrator action by action, but the innate meaning of her behavior draws attention to an underlying tone of foreboding.

Tretheway furthers the narrator’s tone of admiration towards the flowers through figurative language and an allusion to Narcissus. The narrator’s attitude is depicted in watching the flowers that her mother placed “on the sill.” The narrator idolizes and looks up to the flowers as indicated by its physical elevation. She is not appreciative of the flowers’ beauty or elegance, but instead “proud of [her]self” for giving them to her mother. The narrator’s faulty perception is depicted by the “light bend[ing] through the glass” and onto the flower. The light that shines on the flower is reshaped and off-set by the glass to be imperfect. Similarly, the narrator herself obscures her own viewpoint with her pride and narcissism, and merely views the flower as an extension of her own pride. She then draws a connection between the flowers and herself by stating she “must have seen in the some measure of [herself].” Like the flower’s “slender stems,” it can be inferred that the narrator has a slender physique due to her age. The slenderness of the narrator also suggests a undeveloped and naive mentality; she only follows her primal instincts of feeling proud and chasing “toward praise” from her mother. In doing so, she is “bow[ing] to meet its reflection,” like both Narcissus the flower and Narcissus the greek demigod. She shows complete disregard for the outside meanings of her actions. Analogous to the way Narcissus stares at his reflection, the narrator stares at the mimicking flower. The allusion to Narcissus and the personification of the daffodil, and furthermore the adoring tone of the narrator, serve to solidify the narrator as narcissistic and naive.

But the ultimate demise of Narcissus and the daffodil serve to reflect the narrator’s own realization and loss of childhood ignorance. The pessimistic and bleak tone of the narrator when describing the flower’s eventual end is a sharp turn away from the previous tone of admiration. The daffodil, while lively and vibrant when it was discovered, is now withered and dead. The narrator describes it as having a “short spring—” to illustrate its ultimate downfall. By using two one-syllable words to conclude the line and a caesura, she conveys how the quick lifespan of the flower is cut off. Similarly, Narcissus stares at his own reflection until he himself dies. This termination of life serves to signify the narrator’s realization of the foolishness behind her actions; even though the daffodil is visually appealing when artificially removed from its habitat, its quick transformation into “graveside flowers” mirrors the narrator’s disgust her previous naivete. Because the flower is an extension of her own pride, its “treacherous” whisper is also viewed as the narrator’s own treachery to her mother, telling her to “die early.” Throughout the poem, the narrator acts with disregard towards her mother, feeling “proud of [her]self” instead of affectionate to her mother when “giving [her] mother” something. The mother only serves to elevate the narrator’s own pride for herself. But this desire for solely pride—which, like the flowers, is so attractive initially—is eventually expunged by the narrator, marking her transition from childish ignorance to maturity. The narrator now describes the daffodils like “graveside flowers” to communicate that the narcissistic aspect of her childhood is now dead. Only now, with her matured awareness, does she know that the daffodil was a symbol of death she unwittingly gave to her mother. Her tone of both clarity and bleakness is a reflection of her views regarding her childish vanity: she demonstrates the eventual destructive nature—even if she didn’t notice at the time—of narcissism and her sadness at this fact.

Thus, Trethewey utilizes the daffodils as an allusion to Narcissus, a metaphor for the narrator’s own narcissism, and also its relation to death in order to delineate the narrator’s destructive childish ignorance and her eventual progression away from this ignorance. The daffodils, carrying a prominent and attention-grabbing tone to start, are reduced to something dreary and decaying at the end, mirroring the narrator’s recognition of her own narcissism. Ultimately, this juxtaposition of tone, the multiple symbolic meanings of the daffodil, and the narrator’s own metaphorical actions all contribute to Trethewey’s powerful image of the destructive nature of narcissism.