Bellocq’s Ophelia, by Natasha Trethewey

A few weeks before the end of the spring semester, I wrote about my plan to reward myself with a pretty sparkler from Ann Taylor if I completed my oh-so-daunting project list. Three weeks later, I’d changed my mind. (And then I found a 12$ version from Target and was totally vindicated.) The idea of some sort of reward stuck with me, and instead of the necklace, I cleared up a bit of my Amazon wish list.

A few of the things that have been delivered to my sagging bookshelves lately: The Five Red Herrings, to assist in the continuation of my slow but sure Dorothy Sayers read-a-long (Conundrums for the Long Weekend and her various novels); Nancy Mairs’ Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer (quite wonderful. I’ll elaborate later); and Bellocq’s Ophelia, a collection of poetry by Natasha Trethewey.

E. J. Bellocq was a photographer in New Orleans at the turn of the century. His “official” reputation was made with his photographs of landmarks and buildings; his private photographs are vastly more interesting. He is most well-remembered for his Storyville portraits: photographs of the prostitutes who lived in New Orleans’ legalized red light district.

(This has always been my favorite of his pictures. Love how totally into that glass of gin she is. And her tights. Which are fabulous.)

Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia takes its name from the introductory poem in the collection:

“BELLOCQ’S OPHELIA”

In Millais’s painting, Ophelia dies faceup,

eyes and mouth open as if caught in the gasp

of her last word or breath, flowers and reeds

growing out of the pond, floating on the surface

around her. The young woman who posed

lay in a bath for hours, shivering,

catching cold, perhaps imagining fish

tangling in her hair or nibbling a dark mole

raised upon her white skin. Ophelia’s final gaze

aims skyward, her palms curling open

as if she’s just said, Take me.

 

I think of her when I see Bellocq’s photograph —

a woman posed on a wicker divan, her hair

spilling over. Around her, flowers —

on a pillow, on a thick carpet. Even

the ravages of this old photograph

bloom like water lilies across her thigh.

how long did she hold there, this other

Ophelia, nameless inmate in Storyville,

naked, her nipples offered up hard with cold?

 

The small mound of her belly, the pale hair

of her pubis — these things — her body

there for the taking. But in her face, a dare.

Staring into the camera, she seems to pull

all movement from her slender limbs

and hold it in her heavy-lidded eyes.

Her body limp as dead Ophelia’s,

her lips poised to open, to speak.

(This poem appears in full on the publisher’s site.)

(Millais’s Ophelia)

(Photograph, circa 1912, by Bellocq)

Trethewey’s collection tells the invented history of a Storyville prostitute, Ophelia. 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 gentleman callers choose; and finally the camera, which not only captures the body, but also offers a glimpse into her soul.” (from the publisher’s site)

The collection is heartbreakingly beautiful. Ophelia is so well-spoken, so accessible. She observes and reveals the confinement of her life—of the vast distance between her body (available for purchase), her image (captured by the stranger), and her self (utterly private, interior).

The connections that Trethewey creates between the Storyville portraits (unconventional, not respectable, labeled pornographic) and the traditional and respectable work of the Victorian artist John Everett Millais and through that painting to the tragic Ophelia of Shakespeare’s creation illuminates such interesting interchanges about image, individuality, the exploited body and the disposable life.

Utterly gorgeous. Highly recommended.

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