Water as Conduit, Complex Metaphor, and Capitalistic Annihilator in the Works of Ron Rash and Natasha Trethewey

Contemporary American writers Ron Rash (1953-) and Natasha Trethewey (1966-) seem to have little in common aside from writing about the past and present American South. Rash, a poet and novelist, is known for portraying the beauty and violence of southern Appalachia and for his characters who fight the land, their circumstances, and each other. Trethewey’s poetry is situated in the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and she focuses on her personal memories and stories of black southerners whose stories have not been told. The theoretical framework most applied to Rash’s novels, poetry, and short fiction is ecocritical. In contrast, while Trethewey frequently discusses natural disasters and environmental changes in her poetry and non-fiction, ecocritical approaches comprise only a small portion of Trethewey scholarship, leaving room for more extensive assessment. Discussing these two writers together in an ecocritical framework permits an analysis of multiple common links between Rash and Trethewey that have not been explored, such as their focus on the American South as ‘kill spaces’ and their works’ themes of environmental exploitation and the destructive power of capitalism. In this article, I focus on the significance of water in literary landscapes, the natural element most prevalent in both writers’ works. Ecotheorist Janine MacLeod’s ‘Water and the Material Imagination: Reading the Sea of Memory Against the Flows of Capital’ (2013) provides a framework for reading Rash’s One Foot in Eden (2002) and Saints at the River (2004) and Trethewey’s Native Guard (2006). MacLeod argues that water can and must simultaneously be viewed positively and negatively as a conduit between past and present, and living and dead, and as a force of nature and a commodity (2013: 57). Applying MacLeod’s framework to Rash’s and Trethewey’s work affirms that water as a motif embodies the killing power of capitalism but complicates this connection given water’s associations with history, power, and emotion. Ultimately, this article finds that Rash and Trethewey call attention to the ways human-led changes to nature disproportionately affect communities with little political and economic power. Inextricably tied to this issue are the lost lives and stories in these communities that Rash and Trethewey seek to recover.

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