Natasha Trethewey’s Redemption
Natasha Trethewey coped with the tragedies of her young life by turning them into exceptional poetry. But those wounds will never fully heal.
Natasha Trethewey is a distinguished poet whose work explores the racial legacy of the United States. She served two years as U.S. Poet Laureate and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007.
Trethewey was born in Gulfport, MS, in 1966. Her father was a Canadian poet and college professor and her mother was an African American social worker; their marriage was illegal at the time under Mississippi law. She studied at the University of Georgia and Hollins University, and earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her debut collection Domestic Work (2000) examines black Southern experience. Her Pulitzer-winning collection Native Guard (2006) delves into her mother’s 1985 murder.
Trethewey has released six books of poetry, a work of creative nonfiction on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and a memoir. She served as Poet Laureate of Mississippi from 2012 to 2016 and U.S. Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014. She is a professor of English at Northwestern University.
Natasha Trethewey is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a two-time U.S. Poet Laureate. She believes that poetry is the most powerful literary form, calling it an elegant envelope for language.
Natasha Trethewey: It is a smaller space, a smaller space to move around in, which presents a kind of vice grip, a kind of pressure that I think when you put that kind of pressure on the language to do more, and to say more with less space, the result can be quite memorable.
And she’s been making memorable poetry for better than three decades. Trethewey was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi. Her newlywed parents, Gwendolyn and Eric, lived illegally as husband and wife until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down all laws banning interracial marriage, but not long after this ruling, they separated. Early on, the young Natasha had to figure out how to navigate the world as a child of divorce at a time when it wasn’t yet so common, and growing up biracial in a very racially divided place, yet Trethewey doesn’t hold her childhood against the South.
Trethewey: I am of that place, that soil, that climate, that history. To not love the native land is to not have a part of self-love, I think, because it is the place that made me. I’m not sure who I would be without my mother’s death and without having been born in the deep South. There’s no me now as I know me without those things.
In 1985 at age 40, Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Turnbough, was murdered by her second ex-husband, Joel Grimmette. This was not his first act of violence against her. He’d just been released from prison where he’d spent 12 months for a previous attempt on her life. The tragedy left Trethewey with what she calls a wound that with never heal.
(Natasha Trethewey reading “Imperatives For Carrying On in the Aftermath”)
Do not hang your head or clench your fists
when even your friend, after hearing the story,
says, My mother would never put up with that.
Fight the urge to rattle off statistics: that,
more often, a woman who chooses to leave
is then murdered. The hundredth time
your father says, But she hated violence,
why would she marry a guy like that?—
don’t waste your breath explaining, again,
how abusers wait, are patient, that they
don’t beat you on the first date, sometimes
not even the first few years of a marriage.
Keep an impassive face whenever you hear
Stand By Your Man, and let go your rage
when you recall those words were advice
given your mother. Try to forget the first
trial, before she was dead, when the charge
was only attempted murder; don’t belabor
the thinking or the sentence that allowed
her ex-husband’s release a year later, or
the juror who said, It’s a domestic issue—
they should work it out themselves. Just
breathe when, after you read your poems
about grief, a woman asks, Do you think
your mother was weak for men? Learn
to ignore subtext. Imagine a thought-
cloud above your head, dark and heavy
with the words you cannot say; let silence
rain down. Remember you were told,
by your famous professor, that you should
write about something else, unburden
yourself of the death of your mother and
just pour your heart out in the poems.
Ask yourself what’s in your heart, that
reliquary—blood locket and seedbed—and
contend with what it means, the folk saying
you learned from a Korean poet in Seoul:
that one does not bury the mother’s body
in the ground but in the chest, or—like you —
you carry her corpse on your back.
AJC: How good are you at silence? How good are you at allowing silence to communicate?
Trethewey: I hope I’m really good at it, because poems are made of silence as much as they’re made of words.
AJC: But this idea that you articulate in this poem that you’re just not gonna comment when spoken to by the ignorant, that’s really hard.
Trethewey: Mm-hmm, it is really hard. And I suppose I have stayed silent for a very long time, and this poem is breaking that silence. I mean, the poem very much came for me as a way to respond to all of those people all of those years. So, I guess I’ve kept it so when I finally break my silence even to the world, it has to be in the tight and dense, compressed, elegant language of a poem, with all of its built-in silences.
Natasha Trethewey is now older than her mother was when she died, and her former stepfather will soon be released from prison, yet somehow she still hasn’t given up on the idea of justice being about more than revenge.
Trethewey: I believe in restorative justice. And what that means is, as much as the man who’s being released from prison very soon did something unthinkable, I remind myself that there was a time that he was an innocent, that he was a child, that he came into this world and something so terrible happened to him something so disfiguring of his own soul that it made him capable of doing a monstrous thing. There’s no justice for him either, I suppose.
(Natasha Trethewey reading from “Letter to Inmate #271847”)
Letter to Inmate #271847, Convicted of Murder, 1985.
When I heard you might get out, I was driving through the Delta, rain pounding my windshield, the sun angled and bright beneath dark clouds, familiar weather, what I’d learned long ago to call the devil beating his wife. I was listening to two things at once, an old song on the radio, and on the phone a woman from Victim’s Services— her voice solicitous, slow, as if she were speaking to a child. I was back in the state I still call home, headed south on Highway 49, trying to resurrect my mother in the landscape of childhood, as The Temptations were singing her song—the one she’d played over, and over, our last year in Mississippi, 1971, that summer before we moved to the city that would lead us soon to you. It was Just My Imagination and I could see her again, her back to me, swaying over the ironing board, the iron’s steel plate catching the sun and holding it there. For a moment, I was who I’d been before, the joyful daughter of my young mother— until the woman on the phone said your name, telling me I must write the parole board a letter. I was again stepdaughter, daughter of sorrow, daughter of the murdered woman. This is how the past interrupts our lives, all of it entering the same doorway— like the hole in the trunk of my neighbor’s tree, at once a natural shelter, a haven for small creatures, but also evidence of injury and entrance for decay. When I saw it, I thought of how, as a child, I’d have chosen it for play— A place to crawl inside and hide, and when I thought of hiding I could not help but think of you. What does it mean to be safe in the world? Everywhere I go she is with me— my long-dead mother. Is there nowhere I might go and not find you there too?