Poetry Sunday: “Incident,” by Natasha Trethewey

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day coming up tomorrow, and the Inauguration of a new president on January 20, it seems like an important time to remember our country’s fraught and tragic racial history, and today’s poem is an excellent way to do it.

You probably had a few instances of déjà vu while reading “Incident,” a pantoum, a form composed entirely of repeated refrains. It consists of quatrain (4-line) stanzas where the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next. Some pantoums end with a “circle-back” to the two unrepeated (A) lines of the first stanza, and most are written in iambic tetrameter or pentameter, with either four or five beats per line. [Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms (University Press of New England, 2000), 223.] The stanzas can continue indefinitely, but four stanzas is typical, and one with a circle-back like today’s poem could be diagrammed as ABCD BEDF EGFH BAHC. I’ve written before about the haunting power of repetition in poetry and how it meets a powerful human urge for pattern recognition. This form has repetition built into its very structure and the repetition is of entire lines, not just of end words or rhymes, which may be why the pantoum is one of my favorite forms.

You might think that pantoums, requiring fewer lines, would be easier to execute. Not so—the fact that there are fewer lines and all of them are repeated actually exerts more pressure on each line to be the best it can possibly be. Boring or poorly written lines will sink a pantoum every time. Also, successful pantoums do more than parrot preceding lines. Ideally, the meaning of lines shift upon repetition even if the words remain precisely the same. The poet can accomplish this in a number of ways: the use of punning or homonyms; shifts in punctuation, emphasis, diction, or word forms; or simply through recontextualizing the lines.

In “Incident,” all 20 lines are repetitions of 10 basic lines: 1-4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16. Let’s look at just a few of those to see how the lines change when they are repeated. Perhaps the most dramatic examples are lines 1 and 3 which, unlike the other repetitions, are separated from their repetitions by the entire length of the poem. “[T]hough nothing really happened” does not mean much to us when it first appears in line 3, before we are given any of the details of the cross-burning. At this point, the “nothing” that happened could have been to someone entirely unrelated to the speaker, a stranger perhaps, who she and others were watching from windows. It could even be a natural event, like an eclipse or storm. The very next line, with its mention of “charred grass,” is a clue that there was a fire, but it is not until line 6’s revelation, “the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,” that we begin to understand the gravity of what really did happen. By the time the line recurs in the last stanza, the entire event has been unfolded for us so that we understand the bleak irony of that second “Nothing really happened” (18). What has changed the meaning of the second occurrence of that line is recontextualization—we understand it differently in light of what we learned in lines 2-17. Similarly, the first time we read the poem’s first line, “[w]e tell the story every year,” we interpret it in a wholly different way than we do when we read it again in the poem’s last line.

When I read line 1, I thought of Christmas and Hanukkah, associations reinforced by subsequent references to a “Christmas tree,” “angels,” and oil lamps. How lovely, I thought (or something like that), a poem about how old stories renew hope down through the generations. So, the poem sets up an expectation later overturned in a way that feels all the more shocking and powerful. By the time the line recurs at the poem’s end, we know that the real story here is about as far from a heartwarming holiday tale as it gets, and we understand it to be more of a scar than a balm. If you examine the other line repetitions, you will see subtle shifts in punctuation and changes in diction that change the meaning when the line is repeated; for example, “the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil” (12) becomes something longer-term and more frightening and susceptible to interpretation as a metaphor for the family’s trial in “the wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil” (15) (emphasis added).

The linkage of a near-lynching with these celebratory religious holidays is chilling, to say the least. The plot is simple: “men white as angels in their gowns” came and set a cross on fire while the family hid inside with “shades drawn” and in the “darkened” rooms lit hurricane lamps. The speaker tells us that the men then “left quietly,” and that “nothing really happened.” But we know that something did happen—the family was terrorized, and some or all of them could easily have been brutally murdered. While the cross was burning, they “peered from their windows” and then drew their shades so they could hide their presence in their home. I could not read “the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil” (12) without feeling the terrible vulnerability of that family in those hours. In the same way, line 16’s “by morning the flames had dimmed” offers more than one layer of meaning. You could take it as a reference to the flames of the burning cross or instead to the flames of the burning wicks, but I think it also describes how the flames of hope (or fear) in the family were diminished by the time morning finally came.

Hanukkah and Christmas each celebrate miracles, the former the miracle of one lamp’s worth of oil lasting eight days and nights and the latter the birth of the Christian Messiah. Both tell stories as ancient as time, stories that kindle hope again and again over the generations. And I guess in one way, “Incident’s” story delivers hope, because the family ultimately was spared from lynching. But to me it feels less optimistic than that, more like a story of a near-miss or a cautionary tale, and it’s the contrast of this story’s horror with the shining beacons of those apocryphal religious stories that gives the poem its remarkable and awful (in the sense of full of awe) power.


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  • Susan Gunter January 17, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Perfect choice for what is happening right now. . . we need all these reminders to help us make sure these things don’t happen again. The poem is indeed chilling in its impact, the more so as it is so understated.