My phone interview with the 19th poet laureate of the United States happens just days after a series of national tragedies: the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Tony McDade at the hands of police officers, crimes that have plunged the world—and Black communities in particular—into grief and rage. These circumstances momentarily shift the direction of our interview, and it is Natasha Trethewey who asks the first pointed question: “How are you holding up?” Her voice is rich with an accent that reminds me of home (we both grew up in states along the Gulf Coast), but it’s also tinged with something else: the bone-deep knowledge of what it means to survive violent, life-shattering loss.
Trethewey has spent much of her career studying tragedies of both national and personal scale, and her seventh book, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, is no different. It chronicles the life and death of her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, who was murdered by her second ex-husband, Joel Grimmette Jr., in 1985. Though several of Trethewey’s poetry collections deal with the subject of her mother’s murder (in particular Native Guard, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007), Memorial Drive is the poet’s first memoir.
The prologue begins with a description of Turnbough’s last professionally taken photograph, in which her black dress is so indistinguishable from the background that her face appears to emerge from darkness “as from the depths of memory.” What follows is a haunting exploration of memory—unpredictable, incomplete and at times obfuscating—through the metaphor of negative space, the area around a subject. Interwoven with the book’s chapters are breathtakingly short vignettes in which Trethewey recalls dreamscapes where her mother is still alive, sometimes older than she was at the time of her death. In the vignette that precedes the first chapter, a piercing light shines from a bullet wound in the center of her mother’s forehead, ringing her face in utter darkness as she asks Trethewey, “Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?”
“I can tell you how remarkable my mother was, and resilient, and strong, and rational. Or I can show you.”
The chapters vary drastically in length, from single pages to much longer ones like “Evidence,” which includes transcripts of Turnbough’s final conversations with the man who would kill her only a few days later. During our call, Trethewey explains that she included these because, even when she’s recalling her own painful past, she is, at heart, a historian. “I’m someone who likes documentary evidence,” she says from her home outside Chicago. “I can tell you how remarkable my mother was, and resilient, and strong, and rational. Or I can show you.”
Memorial Drive achieves all of the above, and the reader’s knowledge of how the story will end does nothing to detract from the beauty of its narrative. Trethewey’s life began in racially segregated Gulfport, Mississippi, where she spent her early years surrounded by her mother’s large family in a town that often treated her parents’ interracial union with open hostility. Nevertheless, she lived happily, doted on by great-aunts, uncles and her young mother, with whom she spent time alone as her father pursued graduate studies in New Orleans.
Tall and graceful, Gwendolyn Turnbough was a stylish, creative woman who made her own clothes and eagerly supported her daughter’s ambitions. For instance, when they moved to Atlanta shortly after Turnbough’s first divorce, a dark space beneath the stairs in their new apartment frightened young Trethewey until her mother transformed it into a playroom planetarium, complete with a desk, books and a velvet cloth sky with stars made from cardboard and aluminum foil. Years later, when Trethewey shared with the family her dreams of being a writer and her stepfather told her it would never happen, Turnbough openly defied him with the full knowledge of the abuse she might later suffer. “She. Will do. WHATEVER. She wants,” she told him in front of their two children. In every instance, Turnbough worked to make use of the spaces available to her daughter, ensuring that they were nurturing and, when possible, safe. “In some ways,” Trethewey says, “all of my relationship with my mother, up to losing her, was shaping me. I think that the love I had from her gave me the kind of resilience that could help me survive losing her.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Memorial Drive.
And yet, in spite of Turnbough’s efforts, the Atlanta years mapped out in Memorial Drive are warped by violence. Trethewey describes Grimmette’s physical abuse of her mother, but also his secret torture of Trethewey herself when the two of them were alone. Grimmette would force her to pack her things, then take her for long drives along Interstate 285, threatening to abandon her at every turn. On another occasion, he broke the lock on her diary and read its contents, after which Trethewey began addressing her entries to him, sometimes with explosive language.
When asked about writing to her stepfather in that diary, which her mother purchased in an attempt to offer her a private place to process her thoughts, Trethewey laughs. “I don’t know how I knew, but I just knew that if I did this, that it would be between us, and it would be this way that I could push back. It wasn’t until much later, once I became a writer, that I began to think about it as a defining moment in terms of me having an audience, or imagining that I was writing for someone to read it. I think that it had everything to do with the writer I became.” This destruction of privacy transformed Trethewey’s personal space into a public one, and the poet began speaking truth to power.
Trethewey’s loss of her mother shortly after turning 19, however, is the point at which she believes the second half of her life began; Turnbough’s death split her daughter’s life into two parts, much like the book itself. “I became a whole other person,” Trethewey tells me. “That’s why I structured things as ‘before’ and ‘after.’ The hardest thing to acknowledge sometimes is I don’t know who I’d be without her death. If you were to say to me, ‘She could come back right now, we could undo that,’ it would mean I’d be the one gone. I don’t know who would be here.” Again, what is missing highlights what is left.
Memorial Drive makes clear that the dead are more than their absence, the blank space where there was once a body, a life.
This admission reminds Trethewey of a moment that took place shortly after Turnbough escaped her abusive marriage. During a Friday night football game, Grimmette appeared in the stands as Trethewey stood with the other cheerleaders on the field. When she saw him, she waved, and only later discovered that he’d planned to shoot her that night as punishment for her mother leaving. Near the end of this section in Memorial Drive, Trethewey writes that, theoretically, her mother’s murder would have been impossible had Grimmette killed her first, a sentiment she echoes during our call. “For a long time, it felt to me like I had traded my life for hers,” she explains.
However, loss and self-preservation are never mutually exclusive, and Memorial Drive makes clear that the dead are more than their absence, the blank space where there was once a body, a life. The book ends with the singular image of Turnbough’s still-beating heart, a choice that was influenced by a trip Trethewey took to South Korea. Over the phone, she paraphrases what a local poet told her during her visit. “One does not bury the mother’s body in the ground, but in the chest. Or, like you,” he said, turning to her, “you carry her corpse on your back.” Trethewey admits the observation was, at first, deeply painful, but over the years it has come to represent the ways her mother’s death and life live on. “I have planted my mother like a seed in my chest, in my heart—that’s the living mother,” Trethewey tells me. “The memory of my living mother grows every day; it continues to grow. And I carry her corpse on my back at the same time. And I wouldn’t dare put it down, and don’t want to.”
Poet Destiny O. Birdsong is author of the forthcoming collection Negotiations (Tin House).
Author photo © Nancy Crampton