Bellocq's Ophelia Poems

Natasha D. Trethewey, 1966-

Book - 2002

A collection of poems offers glimpses into the life and thoughts of an African American prostitute in pre-World War I New Orleans.

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Subjects
Published
Saint Paul, Minn. : Graywolf Press c2002.
Language
English
Physical Description
48 p. ; 23 cm
ISBN
1555973590
9781555973599
Main Author
Natasha D. Trethewey, 1966- (-)
  • Bellocq's Ophelia
  • Letter Home
  • Countess P
  • 's Advice for New Girls
  • Letters from Storyville
  • December 1910
  • January 1911
  • February 1911
  • February 1911
  • March 1911
  • March 1911
  • April 1911
  • July 1911
  • August 1911
  • September 1911
  • October 1911
  • December 1911
  • January 1912
  • March 1912
  • Photograph of a Bawd Drinking Raleigh Rye
  • Storyville Diary
  • Naming
  • Father
  • Bellocq
  • Blue Book
  • Portrait #1
  • Portrait #2
  • Photography
  • Disclosure
  • Spectrum
  • (Self) Portrait
  • Vignette.
Review by Booklist Reviews

Trethewey carries forward the lyric musings on black women's lives that she began in her arresting debut, Domestic Work (2000). Photographs served as inspiration there; here Trethewey fashions a one-woman monologue in response to a famous series of early-twentieth-century photographs taken by E. J. Bellocq in Storyville, New Orleans' red-light district. Portraits of an unnamed light-skinned black woman who stares into the lens with assured defiance galvanized Trethewey, who dubs her Ophelia and allows her to speak. As Ophelia writes eloquently restrained and resolute letters to a favorite teacher and tells the heartbreaking story of her failed search for respectable employment and her rescue from hunger and homelessness by a kind and patient madame, Trethewey creates a persona who belies the implied tragedy of her name by focusing her keen intellect on survival and, ultimately, taking control of the camera and her life. Like Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination [BKL Ja 1 & 15 01] and Adrienne Rich's lean but commanding poems, Trethewey's spare yet plangent verse portrait illuminates a soul ennobled in her quiet battle with injustice. ((Reviewed March 1, 2002)) Copyright 2002 Booklist Reviews

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Following up her debut, Domestic Work (2000), which included a number of historical monologues, Tretheway's short sophomore effort is a quiet collection of poems in the persona of a "very white-skinned black woman mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon," a prostitute in New Orleans just before WWI. The Bellocq of the title is E.J., the Toulouse-Lautrec-like photographer whose Storyville prostitute portraits, brought out from oblivion by Lee Friedlander, inspired Louis Malle's 1978 film Pretty Baby and now this sequence. A stanza that begins "There are indeed all sorts of men who visit here" predictably yet elegantly ends "And then there are those, of course, whose desires I cannot commit to paper." Yet this is not generally a sentimentalized account of a conventional subject. Much more like Bellocq's artless, sympathetic and gorgeous portraits are lines like these, describing the "girls": "They like best, as I do, the regular meals, warm from the cooks in our own kitchen, the clean indoor toilet and hot-water bath." While the trend of the first-person historical novel (think Wittgenstein's Nephew as much as Corelli's Mandolin) has passed, the best poems here fulfill the genre's mandate to spice up the period piece with intellectual frisson; Tretheway goes two-for-two by successfully taking on the poetically dubious task of working from art and making it signify anew. (Apr.) Forecast: Despite the book's brevity, expect review attention, as well as short items in glossies profiling Tretheway with the requisite provocative Bellocq reproductions. National Poetry Month reviewers wanting to take stock of recent poetry by African-American women might place this book alongside Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary (Forecasts, Dec. 17, 2001) and Elizabeth Alexander's Antebellum Dream Book (published last year). Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

A collection of poems offers glimpses into the life and thoughts of an African American prostitute in pre-World War I New Orleans.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

Selected as a "2003 Notable Book" by the American Library AssociationIn the early 1900s, E.J. Bellocq photographed prostitutes in the red-light district of New Orleans. His remarkable, candid photos inspired Natasha Trethewey to imagine the life of Ophelia, the subject of Bellocq's Ophelia, her stunning second collection of poems. With elegant precision, Ophelia tells of her life on display: her white father whose approval she earns by standing very still; the brothel Madame who tells her to act like a statue while the gentlemen callers choose; and finally the camera, which not only captures her body, but also offers a glimpse into her soul.