‘Memorial Drive’: Poet Natasha Trethewey on Grief


In speaking to that girl, Trethewey rewrites the years she spent distancing herself from the knowledge that her stepfather abused her mother. Unlike the second-person invocations in “Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath,” a poem from Monument that’s scaffolded with examples of the cruel dismissals that domestic-violence victims face, Trethewey’s note to her younger self focuses inward. Utilizing the second person, the author reaches back and grants herself retroactive compassion. Recalling those early years in Memorial Drive, Trethewey describes the time her mother told her stepfather that a young Natasha had overheard his abuses:

Your shame and your sadness are doubled. You hear in your mother’s words a plea to get him to stop. You hear her desperate hope that his knowing you know, knowing you listen, will put an end to the abuse. As if the fact that you are a child, that you are only in the fifth grade, will change anything at all. And now you know that there is nothing you can do.

you know you know you know.

The repetition here is agonizing to read; Trethewey said she wanted the lines to feel like “a gnashing of my teeth” to the reader. But the acknowledgment of long-buried trauma and how it reverberates also functions as an unburdening. The refrain doesn’t just express anguish; it soothes, too. “I go back again and again to [the words of the English poet Percy Bysshe] Shelley—‘Poetry is the mirror that makes beautiful that which is distorted,’” Trethewey told me. “It is the wonderful things you can do with language, the sonic textures and repetition …  that actually make whatever it is I’m writing about lighter.” She continued: “Because it’s pure pleasure. It’s pure joy when … I’m making a poem or when I’m trying to bring the same kind of poetic lyricism to a page of prose. The levity is the joy of making—of the made thing.”

Even when poetry or narrative doesn’t lift personal burdens, it can offer a lens through which to understand the world. Consider, for example, one work from another former U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith. In “Declaration,” Smith redacts portions of the Declaration of Independence, using an art form known as erasure to create a kind of found poem.

Rather than obfuscating existing truth, though, it gives rise to additional meaning. Smith recasts the Founding Fathers’ grievances, using them to capture the harms they visited upon the people they enslaved (and the ripple effects of that original violence). The poem reappraises a fundamental document of American history, connecting it directly to the tragedies it wrought.

We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration

and settlement here.

                                       —taken Captive

                                                                      on the high Seas

                                                                                                       to bear—

Like Smith’s “Declaration,” the work of the poet Kevin Young disrupts the linearity of time, and of grief. Book of Hours, his 2014 collection, takes its name from the popular Christian prayer devotional. In it, Young chronicles the days that follow his father’s death, placing them in the same timeline as those leading up to a far more joyful milestone: the birth of his son. The connection between sorrow and hope is one that Young explored at length while compiling the 2010 anthology The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing. That tension and promise animates Trethewey’s approach to writing, too. When we spoke, she mentioned a piece by the German-born poet Lisel Mueller called “When I Am Asked,” in which Mueller writes first of “the indifference of nature” before describing a “brilliant June day” soon after her mother’s death. Mueller concludes that she

placed my grief   

in the mouth of language,   

the only thing that would grieve with me

Trethewey, whose mother also died in June, sees the poem as a heavy but hopeful reminder. “It’s that sentiment right there that again and again, I had to put my grief in the mouth of language, because it’s the only thing that will grieve with me,” she told me. “I think a poem like that reminds us of both the isolation that you can feel when you’re grieving, but also the communal feeling that you can feel because of language reminding you that this [process] is ancient and ongoing.”

The pains being exorcised in America now are ancient and ongoing, too—no matter how unprecedented the times. Whether by conveying the scale of national grief during a pandemic, or exposing the relentlessness of racism, poetry has already created new ways of experiencing, and surviving, life’s darkest chapters. And in composing their words, and themselves, through this interminable gloom, Trethewey and other poets working now compose the rest of us, too.

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