Natasha Trethewey’s well-mannered, well-meaning poems are as confused about race as the rest of us. The daughter of a black mother and white father, she was raised in the deep South of the Sixties, when the civil rights acts had still not penetrated the backwaters of her state. (Some would say that in large swatches of the South they haven’t penetrated yet.) Under the miscegenation laws, her parents’ marriage was illegal. In Native Guard, she has wrapped a memoir of her childhood around Civil War history—near her hometown, miles off the coast, former slaves and free men-of-color mustered into the Union army stood guard over Confederate POWs at a ramshackle island fort.[1] A soldier notes in his diary:

Truth be told, I do not want to forget
anything of my former life: the landscape’s
song of...

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