Natasha Trethewey’s ‘Incident’ shares a haunting story told each year in an African-American speaker’s family. This story echoes the rampage of the Ku Klux Klan members across America during the Civil War. They arranged a symbolic ceremony of burning the Christian cross to intimidate the non-white people. This symbolic ceremony is portrayed in the lines of Trethewey’s poem. Her speaker tells the true story of what she and her family fearfully witnessed in a dark and dreary tone.
‘Incident’ by Natasha Trethewey tells a story that is retold each year in the speaker’s family concerning the burning of the cross “trussed like a Christmas tree”.
The speaker of this piece informs readers that the story which she is going to tell is familiar to their family. It is a true story and her family witnessed that fearful event on a night. They peered from their windows and tried to look at the happenings outside. By drawing the shades, they watched through the charred glass. A group of men dressed in white costumes gathered around a cross trussed like a Christmas tree. They put it on fire and left the place. Those who were inside their houses (including the speaker and her family) watched the fiery show throughout the night, in the trembling light of a hurricane lamp.
Structure and Form
This poem is written in the pantoum form similar to a villanelle. It consists of five quatrains. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the following stanza. There is only one exception and it can be found in the last stanza. The second and fourth lines of the fourth stanza are the first and third lines of the last one. Another thing to mention regarding the form is that the first line of the poem is the last line of the last stanza, and the third line of the first stanza is the second of the last stanza. The words remain exactly the same but the meaning changes according to the context.
Trethewey uses a number of literary devices in this poem. The main devices among them are mentioned below:
- Enjambment: It occurs in the first two lines of the second stanza. The poet uses it for maintaining the flow across the lines. For example, the lines “We peered from the windows, shades drawn,/ at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree” are enjambed for hinting at a singular idea and keeping the pace unhindered.
- Repetition: There are several repetitions that conform to the pantoum form. The lines such as “the charred grass still green” are repeated for the sake of emphasis.
- Irony: This device can be found in this line “It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.” It creates a sarcastic effect.
- Imagery: Trethewey makes use of imagery to vividly depict the scenes of her story. For doing so, she depicts the image of the room, internal environment, as well as lighting to create a dark and fearful mood in the text.
- Simile: This device is present in the line “at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree.”
- Metaphor: The phrase “fonts of oil” contains a metaphor. Here, the comparison is made between a font and the oil inside the lamb.
We tell the story every year—
the charred grass now green again.
Trethewey’s ‘Incident’ begins with the reference to a family story. The speaker seems to be a representative of the African-Americans living in Louisiana during the American Civil War. Her family members tell the story, memorizing the event. Whether the story is horrid or mesmerizing is still a matter of question as the poet does not specify anything yet. It compels readers to progress to the next line.
The speaker clarifies how they peered from their windows. Though the shades were drawn (hinting at the nature of the event), they could see what was going on outside. However, she says, “Nothing really happened.” Her casual way of describing things enlightens readers about the state of her mind. It seems she is quite tense to recall the horrid pictures of the event. She is stress-free as nothing happened with them. It happened outside and it had no such impact on their lives.
No matter what happened that night, the situation is now “green” again. Still, the “charred glass,” a symbol of oppression, bears the impressions of that night.
We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.
The second stanza begins with a repetition of the second line of the previous stanza. Along with that, the third line is a repetition of the fourth line of the first stanza. As this poem is a pantoum, this scheme is followed throughout the text. This repetition hints at how the speaker is feeling while recapitulating the event. Her fear makes her say the line again: they peered through the curtained window.
They saw a cross trussed like a Christmas tree. This line contains an allusion to the symbolic cross burning. The infamous supremacist hate group Ku Klux Klan (the KKK) burnt the venerated cross to intimidate the non-white members living in the country. It was meant for hinting at what they could do with the non-whites.
By presenting the images of the cross and the Christmas tree, Trethewey creates a contrast between oppression and life. The “charred glass” is another symbol. According to the speaker, it is still green. It means the glass through which they observed the event was “green,” the color of life and rejuvenation. But, the event was as dark as charcoal.
They darkened their rooms in fear of those who were outside and lit the hurricane lamps. In this way, Trethewey creates a horrid mood inside the text.
At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.
This section contains a vivid description of the event. At the cross which was trussed like a Christmas tree, a few men gathered. They wore whites gowns that made them appear like angels. The Ku Klux Klan members wore white gowns and pointed caps. They wore their emblem at the left side over the chest. Through this line, Trethewey’s speaker refers to the members of the group who gathered around the cross on that night.
The third line of this stanza is a repetition of the fourth line of the previous stanza. But the meaning of this line changes according to the context. Previously, it seemed that the speaker darkened the room to observe what was happening outside. But, here it becomes clear that they did so to remain unnoticed. They feared the Klan members. So she thought they might come inside and could cause harm to their family.
The fourth line “the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil” is another haunting imagery of the effect that the scene produced on the speaker’s mind. She and her family were like the “wicks” trembling in the “fonts of oil”. The “fonts of oil” is a symbolic reference to the Klan members.
It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.
by morning the flames had all dimmed.
The first line of the fourth stanza gives some more information about the nature of those who were burning the cross. They were “white men”. It makes clear that Trethewey is alluding to the racist Ku Klux Klan. The use of the word “angels” is satiric. It is meant for criticizing the Klan members as they dressed in white. No matter what they put on, their hearts were not definitely white!
When they were done, they quickly left the place. Thereafter, none came. Only the cross was burning, in its lonely flames. Those who were behind their curtains witnessing the scene got the message. Their voices murmured in agony and bodies shimmered after witnessing the symbolic act of oppression. Surely, the event had a dent in the speaker’s mind. That’s why she repeats how her mind trembled like a wick in font of oil.
The next morning the flames had dimmed. It gives another message to the readers. The speaker and her family did not sleep that night. They kept on watching the horrid scene. None can possibly sleep after watching such an event. If they are conscious about why such a thing is happening, sleeping is next to impossible. Even remaining awake becomes a tough task!
When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came.
We tell the story every year.
The last stanza of the poem begins with a similar repetition. Here, the first and third lines are the second and last lines of the penultimate stanza. While the second line of this stanza is the third line of the first stanza. The poem ends with a reiteration of the first line. If readers keep the repetitions aside, they can summarize the poem in a few sentences. Then the story becomes more clear to the readers.
The speaker tells this story every year, not in happiness but to remind us of the sufferings of African-Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The poem ‘Incident’ belongs to Natasha Trethewey’s 2006 collection “Native Guard”. She won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2007 for this book. Trethewey is a former Poet Laureate of Mississippi and was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 2012-13. Her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough was part of the inspiration for “Native Guard”. In this book, Natasha Trethewey’s poems tell the story of the Louisiana Native Guards. It is an all-black regiment in the Union Army during the American Civil War, composed mainly of former slaves. This poem also alludes to the Ku Klux Klan that was founded on December 24, 1865. It was an American white supremacist hate group infamous for their acts of terrifying the African-Americans.
Natasha Trethewey’s ‘Incident’ was published in her Pulitzer Prize winner poetry collection “Native Guard”. It was published in 2006 and possibly written in the same year.
Trethewey’s ‘Incident’ taps on themes of oppression, fear, racism, and darkness. The main theme of this poem is oppression.
The speaker of this poem is one who belongs to the African American community. The gender of the speaker is not specified. From the feminist diction, it becomes clear that the speaker is possibly a woman who witnessed the scene a long time ago.
‘Incident’ is a free-verse poem written in the pantoum form. It consists of five quatrains. The form is similar to the villanelle.
The poetic form Pantoum is derived from the Malay verse form pantun. Similar to a villanelle, a pantoum poem consists of repeating lines that occur in a series of quatrains. A common pantoum contains four quatrains. Trethewey’s ‘Incident’ consists of five stanzas but the form is followed strictly.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly explore the themes present in Natasha Trethewey’s poem ‘Incident’.
- ‘Ballad of Birmingham’ by Dudley Randall – This poem was written in response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four Ku Klux Klan members targeted the black congregation. Read more Dudley Randall poems.
- ‘Bartow Black’ by Timothy Thomas Fortune – This poem contains a sarcastic reference to the Ku-Klux. It speaks on the themes of slavery, injustice, and endurance. Explore more Timothy Thomas Fortune poems.
- ‘Cut’ by Sylvia Plath – It’s one of the popular poems of Sylvia Plath. This poem addresses an accident where the speaker almost cut off her thumb and compares her thumb to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Read more Sylvia Plath poems.
- ‘Mississipi’ by Aimé Césaire – This poem depicts the importance of perseverance and strength in the face of any kind of oppression. Explore more Aimé Césaire poems.