On this 13th Day of National Poetry Month, which is also Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, I’m thinking of Natasha Trethewey’s “Enlightenment.”
The poem begins with a portrait of Thomas Jefferson:
In the portrait of Jefferson that hangsat Monticello, he is rendered two-toned:his forehead white with illumination —a lit bulb — the rest of his face in shadow,darkened as if the artist meant to contrasthis bright knowledge, its dark subtext.
The rest of the poem then explores what the speaker calls “contradictions.” I think “Enlightenment” is about the contradictions that each of us embodies, what the speaker calls “distance between / word and deed,” which she debates with her father for years. And the contradictions that we the people embody collectively.
It has been noted that Trethewey’s poems are often about taking the historical and placing it in the context of the personal – or perhaps it’s about finding the historical in the personal (the other way around). The poem illustrates the speaker’s journey to make sense of her own relationship with her own “white father” as she, the “black daughter,” considers the life of Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and their children. The history, “even as it renders us other to each other,” matters because othering helps us define the self – If I am not she, then I am this. If I am not he, then I am that.
But it is also this very act of othering (done collectively) that is absurd in the case of Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches and other times frighteningly violent. We the people have committed many atrocities in our desperate attempts to define (and contain) the other.
The racial othering that is painfully apparent in Jefferson’s words that Trethewey includes in her poem – “the improvement of the blacks in body / and mind, in the first instance of their mixture / with the whites” – becomes personal because of course all political statements are eventually personal. In the original Notes on the State of Virginia, the rest of that sentence reads, “The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life,” in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Even as a consistent opponent of slavery, Jefferson was a racist. I’m fascinated particularly by his evaluation of Phyllis Wheatley and Ignatio Sancho.
Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. — Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar r&oe;strum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. […] Ignatius Sancho has approached nearer to merit in composition; yet his letters do more honour to the heart than the head.
Back in Trethewey’s poem, the speaker hears someone saying “How white was she?” and illuminates, “— parsing the fractions / as if to name what made her worthy / of Jefferson’s attentions: a near-white.” The desire and perhaps even the need to mathematically understand the human behavior is striking. We see that the speaker names herself the “black daughter” of this “white father” – is it her own definition of herself or is it how she thinks her father sees her? I am not sure. Either way, the defining of the whole person without “parsing” feels like a defiant rejection of Jefferson’s brutal formula that breaks up, fragments, and re-mixes a person.
In my attempt to understand this poem by Trethewey whose poem is very much about trying to understand the portrait, the history, and her-story, I am now reading these words by Jefferson. This is a poem that compels me – to read, to re-read, to Google stuff, and to re-read again, and Google more stuff, and look at paintings and images, and watch videos about Sarah Hemings. So maybe, at another level, the title of the poem is about the kind of enlightenment toward which the poem can take the reader.
Side note: The poem reminded me of the recent controversy about Bill Clinton’s portrait, where the artist recently revealed his secret:
If you look at the left-hand side of it there’s a mantle in the Oval Office and I put a shadow coming into the painting and it does two things. It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there. It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him.