February 26, 2021KR Reviews

On Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2020. 224 pages. $27.99. 

For those of us who have spent many years reading Natasha Trethewey’s poems, the basic facts of her mother’s murder at the hands of an abusive ex-husband are already familiar. But, although Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir revisits this devastating subject matter, the book is not derivative or redundant. Instead, it offers fascinating insights into the relationship between poetry and prose. Trethewey returns to images and motifs explored previously in her poems, demonstrating how prose can dig into the same ground as poetry while still unearthing something new about the narrative.

Memorial Drive is a book filled with descriptions of old photographs that reveal family history and mythology, the snapshots allowing us to see what these people couldn’t anticipate, the omens and grim premonitions they missed. Throughout the memoir, Trethewey explores the role that wilful forgetting has played in her life. After her mother’s murder on June 5, 1985, Trethewey spends many years attempting to ignore or silence the past. She becomes estranged from herself, but, like the rewinding of a cassette tape, her memories of trauma keep circling back. “All those years I thought that I had been running away from my past I had, in fact, been working my way steadily back to it.” The many photographs she describes in the book function as a form of memory. They are artifacts for examination, just as in her poem “Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971”—which appears in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Native Guard—where Trethewey studies a picture from a family album, scrutinizing the image for what it omits: “nothing / of what’s inside—mother, stepfather’s fist.”

News footage. Cassette tape recordings. Transcripts of telephone conversations between Trethewey’s mother and the murderer. These documents perform a similar function in the book, working to fill blanks in the author’s memory and to create a fuller picture of a beloved mother. One of the most gripping moments in the memoir is when Trethewey presents the contents of a twelve-page document that her mother had been writing at the time of her death. Twenty-five years after the murder, Trethewey finally reads these words and hears her mother speak about her abuse, her escape from the marriage, and her hopes of “starting anew.”

In addition to the use of photographs, artifacts, and other forms documentation, Trethewey recounts nightmares and reveries to reconstruct the past. The book opens with one of these dreams. “Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals,” asks the vision of the mother, her forehead pierced with a bullet hole, “the size of a quarter.” Trethewey’s poetry has frequently visited the same blurred threshold between sleep and waking. In her enormously skillful poem “Myth,” which functions as a hazy, surreal mirror, the bottom nine lines of the poem are an exact reflection of the opening nine lines. “I was asleep while you were dying,” the poem begins and ends, a terrible cry of loss for the murdered mother. And in “Limen,” a poem from Trethewey’s debut collection, Domestic Work, a woodpecker knocks its beak against the trunk of a catalpa. “I can almost see my mother’s face,” the speaker admits. “She is there, again, beyond the tree.” Just as in Memorial Drive, here, too, the mother exists in the liminal space of what Trethewey calls “the cluttered house of memory.”

The daughter of an interracial marriage, Trethewey is well-positioned to explore liminality. Her father offers lessons that are elliptical and allusive, framed by myth and metaphor (the girl’s recklessness provokes a story about Icarus, her vanity prompts a recitation of Narcissus), while her mother provides more direct warnings about the real dangers of the world. Trethewey speaks clinically about her father’s naivete, which is born out of his Whiteness. And she recognizes her mother’s foresight, how clearly her mother saw the racism her daughter would face; “love alone” would not protect young Natasha who, “as a mixed-race child . . . would ultimately be alone in the journey toward an understanding of the self.”

Memorial Drive is deeply concerned with the construction of the self, what it means to be whole, how the traumas of racism and domestic violence can divide the soul. By the time Trethewey is in fifth grade, she hears her mother being beaten for the first time, “the loud smack” of her stepfather’s fist coming through the wall of her bedroom. Her mother presents her with a diary as a creative outlet; when the stepfather begins to read her daily entries in the journal, Trethewey stops believing in the privacy of her own writing and instead uses the diary as a “near-public act of a communication,” chastising the man for his invasions and abuses. “In my first act of resistance, I had inadvertently made him my first audience,” she explains. “I had begun to compose myself,” she says, her identity as a writer shaped by these early confrontations on the page.

Memorial Drive certainly functions as a portrait of the artist as a young girl. As an adult, through the writing of poetry and prose, Trethewey is able to make some sense of her mother’s death. In a poem like “Graveyard Blues,” she illustrates the inescapable loop of trauma. “I wander now among names of the dead,” she writes, “My mother’s name, stone pillow for my head.” The poem is a blues sonnet that uses the circling, claustrophobic music of the form to reflect the speaker’s loss, her inability—even in sleep—to stop walking the landscape of her mother’s death. Near the end of the book, Trethewey argues that “[w]hat matters is the transformative power of metaphor and the stories we tell ourselves about the arc and meaning of our lives.” The memoir fills in the narrative gaps that Trethewey’s poems so often allow to remain open, explicitly making the connection between her work as a writer and her mother’s life and death. She explains: “Even my mother’s death is redeemed in the story of my calling, made meaningful rather than merely senseless. It is the story I tell myself to survive.” For Trethewey, telling stories does not simply allow her to endure trauma but brings her mother back from death, a brilliant and compelling woman given life again on the page.