Along with Tasha herself, we are stunned at Gwen’s response: “She. Will do. WHATEVER. She wants.” Tasha watches her mother’s face at dinner that night, imagining the inevitable bruises, “calculating the price she’ll keep paying” to save her daughter.
The morning of the murder, the police enter into evidence a handwritten document on a yellow legal pad. Trethewey writes that it took 25 years before she willed herself to read her mother’s words. We read these italicized pages almost immediately after those describing her mother’s vows to protect Tasha from Joel. Gwen’s words are haunted and haunting: “He told me he would be nice and let me choose the way I wanted to die.”
What happens in most riveting literature is seldom located solely in plot. I’ve not read an American memoir where more happens in the assemblage of language than “Memorial Drive.” Trethewey’s subtext has subtext, much of it gendered, raced, playful and sincerely placed in the lush literary distance between Mississippi — where she spent her early, happy childhood in her mother’s hometown, tenderly evoked here — and Memorial Drive in Atlanta.
Trethewey’s memoir is not the hardest book I have ever read. The poetry holding the prose together, the innovativeness of the composition, make such a claim impossible. “Memorial Drive” is, however, the hardest book I could imagine writing. “When I finally sit down to write the part of our story I’ve most needed to avoid,” Trethewey says toward the end, “when I force myself at last to read the evidence, all of it — the transcripts, witness accounts, the autopsy and official reports, the A.D.A.’s statement, indications of police indifference — I collapse on the floor, keening as though I had just learned of my mother’s death.”
We cannot simply watch what could be seen as traumatic spectacle — what Baldwin called “anguish” — not if we want, as Imani Perry says, “to get free.” We owe more to ourselves, and more to Trethewey’s masterpiece. There is a deeply Southern echo in these pages that offers us the opportunity to do more than marvel, more than pander to pathos, more than pity Tasha, the child, and admire Natasha Trethewey, the writer.
“Memorial Drive” forces the reader to think about how the sublime Southern conjurers of words, spaces, sounds and patterns protect themselves from trauma when trauma may be, in part, what nudged them down the dusty road to poetic mastery. I closed “Memorial Drive” asking myself how one psychologically survives the secrets we hide from ourselves when our freedom depends not simply on extraction, but on the obliteration of cliché — the lazy reader’s and lazy memory’s truth.
The more virtuosic our ability to use language to probe, the harder it becomes to protect ourselves from the secrets buried in our — and our nation’s — marrow. This is the conundrum and the blessing of the poet. This is the conundrum and blessing of “Memorial Drive.” How do you not vomit up all the anguish when artfully vomiting up all the anguish is one way of getting free?