16 pages 32 minutes read

Natasha Trethewey

Elegy for the Native Guards

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


“Elegy for the Native Guards” by Natasha Trethewey was published in Native Guard (2007)--her third of six books of poetry which won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “Elegy for the Native Guards” was also published in the Atlanta Review and Southern Cultures. It is an elegy with 24 lines broken into four rhymed sexains (six-line stanzas). The epigraph (quotation) at the beginning of the poem marks it as a response to Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”

“Elegy for the Native Guards” focuses on how there is a plaque dedicated to Confederate soldiers, but nothing commemorating the Black Union soldiers on Ship Island. Trethewey examines loss and memory, the process of memorialization and monument making, and systemic racism enduring after death.

Poet Biography

Natasha Trethewey was born April 26, 1966 (Confederate Memorial Day), in Gulfport, Mississippi--the location mentioned at the opening of “Elegy for the Native Guards.” The American Civil War loomed over her life. Her birthday was not only Confederate Memorial Day, but also the 100th anniversary of its first celebration.

Trethewey grew up in the south with a Black mother—Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough—and Canadian father, Eric Trethewey. Gwendolyn was a social worker, while Eric was also a poet and an English professor at Hollins University. They fled to Ohio from Mississippi to marry because miscegenation was still a crime there, but returned before Trethewey was born. When Trethewey was six, her parents divorced. When she was 19, her mother was murdered by her second husband. She cites her mother as an inspiration for Native Guard; she dedicated the text to her mother's memory.

Trethewey received an MA in poetry from her father's Hollins University and an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts. She was part of the Dark Room Collective--a reading series in Cambridge, Massachusetts that supported African American poets. In 2010, Trethewey was awarded an honorary doctorate from Hollins University after having received an honorary degree from Delta State University. She has also held honorary positions at the prestigious Duke University and Yale University, among others. Trethewey married Brett Gadsden, an Associate Professor of History at Northwestern University.

Her work has won many awards. She won the first Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, and the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry with her first book, Domestic Work, in 2000. In 2012, after several more publications, Trethewey was named 19th United States Poet Laureate (2021-14), as well as the state poet of Mississippi (2012-16).

Poem Text

Trethewey, Natasha. “Elegy for the Native Guards.” 2007. Poetry Foundation.


“Elegy for the Native Guards” is a rhymed, 24-lined poem broken into four, six-lined stanzas. It begins with a quotation from Allen Tate.

The first stanza describes leaving the city of Gulfport. The plural first-person “we” travels by boat, accompanied by birds. When they arrive at Ship Island, they see a fort open to the elements, which is a monument to some soldiers who died in the Civil War.

In the second stanza, they follow a ranger inside, although they are anxious to enjoy the beach. He mentions that the island lost its graves during a hurricane. He leads the tour through the cannon-room as well as the gift shop at the fort.

The third stanza is a description of a plaque in front of the fort. It was added by the Daughters of the Confederacy and lists the names of Confederate soldiers. However, the names of the Union men in the Native Guard—the Black soldiers—are not included. The speaker wonders about their legacy.

In the fourth and final stanza, there is a comparison between what is lost and what remains. Graves and headstones are no longer on the island, but under water. Observers can only hear the ocean. The fort remains, but is incomplete and exposed to the elements and the eye of (the presumably Christian) God.