BY DR. GLENN ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
In May 1985, 19-year-old Natasha Trethewey had a dream. Natasha and her mother are walking side by side, neither of them speaking.
Out of the darkness, Joel Grimmette, Natasha’s former stepfather, walks toward them.
“Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?,” Gwendolyn asks her daughter. In the center of her forehead “is a hole the size of a quarter.”
In a few moments, they encounter Grimmette again. This time he is carrying a gun. Shouting “No,” Natasha throws herself in the bullet’s path, her cry rousing her from sleep.
In the ensuing decades, Trethewey, a professor of English at Northwestern University, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection “Native Guard’’ and served as poet laureate of the United States, applied the dream to the narrative of her life, in which her mother’s murder is redeemed by her calling as a writer. She acknowledges that she tells herself this story to survive.
“Memorial Drive’’ is an elegantly written, riveting, and achingly intimate account of love, loss, grief and guilt. Trethewey revisits Mississippi, where she lived until the age of 7 with her parents and her grandmother, next door to Aunt Sugar, on a small plot of land that had been in Gwendolyn’s family for generations.
Natasha examines her adjustment to Atlanta as a “child of miscegenation” and to the divorce of her parents.
Aided in the last few years by access to transcripts of telephone conversations, witness accounts and autopsy reports provided by the office of the DeKalb County District Attorney, Trethewey analyzes the relationship between her struggle to come to terms with the tragic trajectory of her mother, who she wanted to please more than anything, but “whose true face, like her thoughts, was mostly hidden from [her],” and the ways in which she has – and has not – succeeded in “composing herself.”
A TOUCHING ACCOUNT
A prose poem, “Memorial Drive’’ is filled with touching and trenchant incidents and insights.
The first time Natasha heard her mother being beaten, we learn, Natasha was in fifth grade. As she tucked her half-brother Joey into the top bunk in the bedroom, she heard the loud smack of Joel’s fist against Gwendolyn’s face, followed by her mothers’ voice, “almost a whimper but calm, rational, ‘Please Joel. Don’t hit me again.’ ”
The next day, Natasha told her teacher about her mother’s dark and swollen left temple.
“You know, sometimes adults get angry with each other,” Mrs. Messick replied, and turned toward the door.
When Natasha heard her mother tell her husband, “Tasha knows,” the neediness of this otherwise powerful woman taught her “about the world of men and women, of dominance and submission” and she realized nothing would change.
When Trethewey decided to write “Memorial Drive,’’ she reveals, she had more dreams about her mother. In one of them, Gwendolyn is “the old woman she never became, thin and slightly stooped, her hair silvery gray,” moving slowly, touching objects on shelves, as if contemplating things she has collected.
When Natasha wakes up, she tries to identify them, “certain they hold the story of who she was,” only to realize she had not seen the objects: “The whole time, her back was to me.”
Trethewey still recalls her trips back to Mississippi. The year before she was old enough to drive, Gwendolyn let her daughter take the wheel on long stretches of empty highway.
Natasha leaned into her, her back against her chest, driving this way for miles “so close we seemed conjoined, and I could feel her heart beating against me as if I had not one but two.”
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.