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Bellocq's Ophelia

4.26  ·  Rating Details ·  386 Ratings  ·  43 Reviews
Selected as a "2003 Notable Book" by the American Library Association

In the early 1900s, E.J. Bellocq photographed prostitutes in the red-light district of New Orleans. His remarkable, candid photos inspired Natasha Trethewey to imagine the life of Ophelia, the subject of Bellocq's Ophelia, her stunning second collection of poems. With elegant precision, Ophelia tells of h
Paperback, 64 pages
Published April 1st 2002 by Graywolf Press
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Dec 10, 2007 Tracy rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
After reading a great essay on, I discovered a book called Bellocq's Ophelia written by Natasha Trethewey. It's a series of poems written as letters from a Storyville prostitute to her girlhood friend, now a schoolmarm in their rural hometown. Ophelia is black, but can pass. The letters reveal her path to the brothel and how she endures her time there. Trethewey meditates on "the gaze," those who wield it and those subject to it. At first, Ophelia is just a possession/thing to be looke ...more
Mar 24, 2011 Chapple rated it really liked it
Letter Home
-New Orleans, November 1910

Four weeks have passed since I left, and still
I must write to you of now work. I've worn down
the soles and walked through the tightness
of my new shoes, calling upon the merchants,
their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking
my plain English and good writing would secure
for me some modest position. Though I dress each day
in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves
you crocheted - no one needs a girl. How flat
the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thi
Mike Jensen
Dec 10, 2014 Mike Jensen rated it really liked it
A little over 100 years ago, EJ Bellocq took a series of photographs of prostitutes in New Orleans. Natasha Trethewey saw the old photos and fashioned this fictional "biographical" book of poems around one of the women, the Ophelia of the title and on the cover, an Ophelia who chose to live.

Most of the poems are Ophelia's letters home telling of her life. What comes through is a story of non-judgmental survival, a woman doing what she must and coming to terms with it for various reasons, one of
Jan 05, 2008 Terri rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
This book launched my interest on the ekphrastic tradition in narrative voice. This book resonates on so many levels - the craft of the writing itself, the male gaze, autobiography, social issues past and present. I love it!
Therese Broderick
Sep 19, 2012 Therese Broderick rated it really liked it
Upon hearing that Natasha Trethewey had been appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, I re-read my copy of "Bellocq's Ophelia." I encourage anyone who celebrates Ms. Trethewey's recent national honor to consider this book as her Ars Poetica of the year 2002 (and perhaps of the year 2012 as well). The book is just as much an investigation into the art of poetry as it is an investigation into the art of photography: When is a photograph (a poem) beautiful? when is it ugly? When is photography (poetry) a tool ...more
Dec 30, 2015 Michael rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
An ekphrastic novella of thematically related verse, Trethewey's imagined life of an octoroon prostitute in the New Orleans of the very early twentieth century draws its inspiration from the Storyville photographs of E. J. Bellocq (later collected in Storyville Portraits). I especially liked the unrhymed sonnets of the Storyville diary section of the book. While this is the imagined life of a black woman who sometimes could pass for white in a very specific place and time, in a wider sense it is ...more
Jan 03, 2012 Rachel rated it liked it
Trethewey offers a very unique concept for a book of poetry. This book is the common reader for a conference for Sigma Tau Delta that I will be attending this year. Bellocq was a 19th century photographer. After his death, a collection of photographs of New Orleans prostitutes was discovered. Tresthewey wrote poems from the voice of one of these women who fell into poverty and turned to prostitution to make a living. That being said, this was an okay book for me. Some of the poems did capture th ...more
Aug 15, 2016 Megan rated it liked it
I like the concept. I definitely want to reread this set of poems again. I'm not very focused right now, so it's hard to give an accurate review. Still I found the concept behind the book fascinating. The poems are accessible and interesting.
Feb 03, 2016 Lee rated it really liked it
A small volume, a novella really, of poetry. Usually not my thing but presented in a striking format. A story told based on the imaginings of what life must be for the woman in the cover portrait.
Jan 30, 2016 Jordan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: for-school, poetry
A masterful and moving portrait (view spoiler). Humanizing but not romanticizing, intimate without being voyeuristic.
May 09, 2014 Austin rated it it was amazing
The only negative thing I could say about this is that there isn't more to read. I don't read a lot of poetry, but this short collection was great and really interesting.
Dec 17, 2014 Jonathan rated it it was amazing
I love Trethewey's poetry. It is filled with such ache and confusion buy is so beautifully written. This one goes above and beyond all her other collections so far. This collection is based on a book of photos E. J. Bellocq took of prostitutes in New Orleans in the early 1900s. The "story" contained in these poems centers on one in particular, whom Trethewey names Ophelia. Using her art, Trethewey tells a story that Bellocq never could. She digs into the heart of a girl who just wanted to be hap ...more
Mar 25, 2014 Jazmyn rated it really liked it
This book was beautiful, I could hear the quiet in the poems, and I loved the concept of taking images and giving them context and a story.
David Haller
Jan 23, 2015 David Haller rated it liked it
A series of elegant poems presented as intertwined letters and vignettes. One for the shelf.
Olivia Chambers
Sep 26, 2016 Olivia Chambers rated it really liked it
Very beautiful poems. I don't read poetry often, but this was a very nice collection.
Misha Monroe
Jan 04, 2016 Misha Monroe rated it it was amazing
Really enjoyed the formatting of this one. Great story. Wonderfully written.
John M.

This is a series of poems based on a photo from the Storyville series by photographer EJ Bellocq. Ophelia is the fictional name given to the woman on the book's cover photo.

The poems in the series are letters, written by Ophelia, detailing her experiences as a mulatto, a prostitute, and a young woman. I don't read a lot of poetry but I found these engaging because the character's voice and her growth over the collection had a story arc. Trethewey's abilities as a poet and storyteller give life t
Laura Heller
Aug 03, 2014 Laura Heller rated it it was amazing
Absolutely fell in love with this book. Beautiful. Amazing. Thralling.
Cee Spind
Feb 19, 2015 Cee Spind rated it it was amazing
Gotta thing for topic-centric poems; loved the series of letters.
Jan 14, 2008 Tara rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, favorites
Incredible. Trethewey takes these old photos of prostitues, captured in a New Orleans brothel by a photographer named Bellocq in the early 1900s, and imagines characters, a life, a place for them. The poems are diary entries and letters and musings and such. Not only are they astounding in image and rhythm (a gasping kind of read!) but Trethewey manages to capture narrative voice perfectly. The "stories" in these poems are interesting, too. I've remembered this book for years and lovingly keep m ...more
Mar 30, 2011 Komal rated it really liked it
I am not a person that usually enjoys poetry, or really understands it but this book resonates with me. It is such a beautiful collection of poetry written by Tretheway based on photographs taken by Bellocq and found after his death. She writes as if she is one of the prostitutes about what she thinks they may have thought, felt and experienced bringing light to the pain faced by the "octaroon" prostitutes plight in the 20's, much of which is still relevant today. Beautiful and eloquent I recomm ...more
Apr 08, 2013 Laura rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
"In the parlor today,
a man resolved to find the hint
that would betray me, make me worth
the fee. He wore a monocle, moved in
close, his breath hot on my face.
I looked away from my reflection --
small and distorted--in his lens."
August 1911

"my skin gooseflesh/ the Braille text of my future."
February 1911

"the wet grass throbbing
with crickets, insistent, keen
as desire. Now

I feel what trees must--
budding, green sheaths splitting--skin
that no longer fits."
March 1912
Aug 28, 2016 Alarie rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
This is another collection of ekphrastic poetry by Trethewey, based on Bellocq’s photos from the red light district of New Orleans in the early 20th century. The narrator is an octoroon, a black woman light enough to almost pass as white who couldn’t find any other way to support herself. She’s pragmatic, sometimes a bit defiant in justifying her choice, but we feel her pain and the injustice of her life in these moving poems, often written as letters. This was my favorite of her collections to ...more
Apr 20, 2014 Marthe rated it liked it
A quiet collection of poems in the persona of a prostitute in New Orleans just before WW2. Storyville prostitute portraits taken at that time are used throughout in a sympathetic, artless yet gorgeous fashion.

"there are indeed all sorts of men/ who visit here" and predictably yet elegantly ends with "And then there are those,/ of course, whose desires I cannot commit/ to paper."

She definitely spices up this period with intelligent frisson.
Robert Pannell
Mar 13, 2012 Robert Pannell rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: New Orleans History, Realism, Narrative Poetry,
I actually had the pleasure of hearing Nastasha Trethewey read selections form Bellocq's Ophelia in New Orleans. After reading the work and then hearing the author bring the words to life, it was an experience I will never forget. She was amazing. Poetry is fantastic, and Trethewey's approach was fantastic. With Bellocq's Ophelia Trethewey brought life to the character creating words into a film of the mind.
Aug 14, 2012 Libby rated it it was amazing
This collection of poems tell a story of a fair skinned African American young woman who leaves her rural community to seek a job in New Orleans. After being told they don't need a "girl." She ends up getting a job in a brothel and is photographed by Bellocq. The language is so precise, the poems lyrical and narrative. I think she's my new favorite poet. (See my recent review of "Domestic Work.")
Beverly James
Nov 19, 2008 Beverly James rated it it was amazing
I generally hate poetry, but can't put this one down. I met the author and was pleasantly surprised by her prose. Natasha won the 2007 Pulitzer for poetry and teaches at Emory University. This collection of poems is beautifully written, yet it isn't rigid in form. Hard to explain, but reading her poems is like listening to a song. Brilliantly done.
Jun 01, 2012 Jennifer rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
Not as strong as Native Guard, but a fascinating collection inspired by women whose images were captured but whose stories were never told. I read it in grad school and then donated to a book drive. After reading Native Guard and meeting Trethewey, I wish I had kept it.
Jan 08, 2014 Nicole rated it it was amazing
One of my favorite books of poetry. Trethewey is a master.
Nov 13, 2015 Ciona rated it it was amazing
Shelves: just-read
Tretheway is masterful with language. And i love the character development, experiencing Ophelia's transformation. Different ending, but I still felt that sense of tragedy of Shakespeare's Ophelia.
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Natasha Trethewey (born April 26, 1966) is an American poet who was appointed United States Poet Laureate in June 2012; she began her official duties in September. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her 2006 collection Native Guard, and she is the Poet Laureate of Mississippi.

She is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, where she also dire
More about Natasha Trethewey...

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