“All those years I thought I had been running away from my past I had, in fact, been working my way steadily back to it,” Natasha Trethewey writes in “Memorial Drive,” a memoir about the death of her mother. Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough was killed by her second husband after years of terror and violence.
“Memorial Drive” is the name of a street in Atlanta, but it is also a description of Trethewey’s need to return to the past, to go back, to gather evidence before it falls apart or is lost.
Two previous works offer additional insight into Trethewey’s need to return to the past. Like “Memorial Drive,” her Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, “Native Guard,” honors her matriarchal family and recognizes the value of land and place. “Thrall,” a poetry collection published in 2012, examines Trethewey’s biracial identity and is, in effect, a conversation with her father, who was white.
In “Memorial Drive,” when Trethewey regrets things she has forgotten, when she writes that “the writer in me now says I’d have been ruthless, keeping a record that could stand as an accurate account of our lives in the years leading up to the tragedy,” fans will recall “Elegy,” the poem that opens “Thrall.” In that poem, Trethewey, describing a fishing outing with her father late in his life and her efforts to remember the images and details of the day, writes, in a moment of direct address, “I can tell you now/ that I tried to take it all in, record it/ for an elegy I’d write — one day —/ when the time came. Your daughter,/ I was that ruthless.”
Which is to observe that, within the moment, Trethewey battles with her role as a documentarian and her work as a person who uses art to share what she finds and to reveal and instruct. It’s also my coy way of saying that I am a fan. Like Trethewey, I have lost a parent to gun violence. Although the circumstances were different, I know something about that need to go back.
“Memorial Drive” is the work of a brilliant adult, reframing the insights of an uncommonly keen child, and there are times when the difficulties of recalling the child as an adult are evident. Repetition can allow thematic resonance in poetry and tend toward redundancy in prose.
But “Memorial Drive” is an enduring work, beautiful and horrific. Images are the source material, and Trethewey makes smart use of them. Photographs, music and memories, combined with evidence from the murder trial, are pathways on Trethewey’s journey, which begins “in the close arrangement of daily life with [her] mother’s family” and becomes an epic struggle, a steady working back.
As Trethewey writes, “to survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it.” Trethewey is a survivor, and over the course of three decades she has become able to tell a story about it. The story she tells is grim and grand, like all struggles to survive. In her telling, Trethewey reveals and instructs.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist in St. Paul.
By: Natasha Trethewey.
Publisher: Ecco, 211 pages, $27.99.