Themes of Time, History and Mortality in "Pilgrimage"

Natasha Trethewey is an American poet who frequently writes about the connections we have with our past and history that many people wish they could forget or remember at the same moment. This interior dispute of memory is shown throughout one of her poems “Pilgrimage” in an unpredicted difference and blinding remembrance that society has the power to choose the version of history we can recall. In this way, “pilgrimage” sets up the historical discussion in section II, while also relating to the general themes of time, history, and mortality.

Section II of Native Guard starts off with an epigraph by Nina Simone, which states, “Everyone knows about Mississippi” this is a direct quote taken from her original song, “Mississippi Goddamn.” (Brief history of this song: written in 1964 after the murder of Medgar Evers a civil rights leader from Mississippi). She uses this quote to pull readers in a bit of confusion/mystery. This section is about Mississippi history, especially the civil war and the Louisiana Native Guards. In her first poem of section II, “Pilgrimage” Trethewey features the range of pain that comes to light of America’s dark history. From the beginning, she constructs the mood of a brutal society that was once the town she grew up in. The very first sentence of the poem, she describes Mississippi as “mud-dark path, a graveyard for skeleton of sunken riverboats.” The “mud-dark path” is credited to the tumultuous history of the south in the United States. Mississippi is a southern state, was a big advocate for slavery. This concept is advanced when she touches on the “skeletons of sunken riverboats,” which is a reference to the Civil War, a war that was stimulated as a result of the division between slave states and free states. She notes how the river that flows “changed its course” just like the history of the United States changed its course after the civil war.

Trethewey’s poem “pilgrimage” includes the themes of time, history, and mortality as it also presented in the whole text. “Turning away from the city as one turns, forgetting, from the past,” this quote generates the initiative of forgetting the past and moving ahead. She compares the Mississippi river to “graveyard/ for skeletons” that refers to regrets from her past. Just like Mississippi is the resting place for sunken ships from the Civil War, also becomes the burial place for her past memories and pushes her away from the past. Still, her journey of moving forward brings her to “the dead stand up in stone. White marble, on Confederate Avenue”. Trethewey is preyed upon the dead, as they (her mother/ solders) come alive (Myth section I) to her through their headstones. Even though the river attempted to move her away from the memories that haunt her, it only placed Trethewey in the center of the haunting reminders of her past pain.

Trethewey, an American poet, often writes about the links we have with a history we wish to erase but at the same time remember. “Pilgrimage” shows the internal debate of time, history and mortality. 

09 March 2021
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