The name Ophelia is synonymous with tragedy and loss. It has survived not only in literature, but also in music, in film and in art since Shakespeare’s time. Natasha Trethewey, whose previous collection Domestic Work won the 1999 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and the 2001 Lillian Smith Book Award, uses two sources as a point of departure for her second collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia. One is a portrait of Ophelia painted by Millais. The other, a set of photographs taken by E.J. Bellocq.
Using Bellocq’s portraits to establish a time and place, New Orleans around 1912, Trethewey imagines the life of a young prostitute. She uses Millais’s portrait of Ophelia to establish a tenuous link between the Ophelia of literature and her own imagined Ophelia and then delivers a cycle of poems that detail her character’s life working in an octaroon brothel. Ophelia is the daughter of a black mother and white father, raised with hard work but educated, a lady among bawds. She becomes a model for Bellocq, who pays for his time, but only photographs the girls. In time Ophelia becomes a photographer in her own right and turns her eye on both the world around her and herself. The poems deal with issues of representation, objectification, and race and gender politics.
Bellocq’s Ophelia falls short of what it could have been in several ways. The principal problem is that Trethewey’s Ophelia could have been a much more developed character. The title of the collection itself draws attention away from the central character by focusing it on the associations a reader will have with the name Ophelia and the actual historical personage of E.J. Bellocq. We learn more along the way, of course. Ophelia apparently suffered abuse. She stood like a statue to please her father as she does for customers and the camera. She comes to New Orleans for a new life and tries to pass for white. But the events that shape her all have previous literary precedents; they are all familiar to one extent or another. Trethewey does not provide enough poetry (the collection is only 48 pages long) to round the edges of her Ophelia.
The language of the book is subtle, and this approach often minimizes the emotional impact of Ophelia’s story. Even in the section Storyville Diary where the character is writing journal entries, she doesn’t depart from the understated voice she assumes in her letters home. Her highs are not spoken loudly enough nor are her lows whispered with enough feeling to bring the reader into the character’s heart and mind.
This is not to say the book doesn’t have good moments. The best poems are those that investigate Ophelia’s relationship to the camera and to Bellocq.
In "Portrait #1" she tells us,
Here, I am to look casual, even
frowsy, though still queen of my boudoir.
A moment caught as if by accident.
She knows what it is to pose, to act as a statue. The mistress of the house instructs all of the girls how to become images and art objects. Ophelia also knows that if the photographs are published, they will be his as far as the world is concerned. In time, Ophelia takes up her own camera and begins to see the world through her own lens.
I thrill to the magic of it…
In the negative,
the whole world reverses, my black dress turned
white, my skin blackened to pitch. Inside out,
I said, thinking of what I’d tried to hide.
Ophelia explores what the camera can and cannot see.
I’ve learned the camera well, the danger
of it, the half-truths it can tell, but also
the way it fastens us to our pasts…
In the poem "(Self) Portrait", Ophelia begins photographing a street scene, and ends by examining herself. Watching a train pull away, she remembers her own departure, seeing her mother on the platform as she left her own home. Distracted by this memory, she looks in the camera and sees her own eye staring back.
At other times, in poems like "Portrait #2", we see Ophelia being rendered vulnerable by the camera.
When I see this plate
I try to recall what I was thinking—
how not to be exposed, though naked, how
to wear skin like a garment, seamless.
Unfortunately, while opening a great deal of ground, Bellocq’s Ophelia does not fully explore its material. This said, asking for more is probably the best criticism an author could be given.
- Mercer Bufter