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.