Poets & Writers

A POETICS OF RESILIENCE

IN METALLURGY, the word resilience describes a material’s ability to withstand fire, to be set loose by heat and, when cooled, recover its form. Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Natasha Trethewey—a former two-term U.S. poet laureate and a professor at Northwestern University—is the definition of such resilience. In seven volumes of poetry and prose, including Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, forthcoming from Ecco in July, she has reckoned with traumas, both personal and cultural. In each work, Trethewey goes beyond witnessing to seek truth in all its complexity, forging her language in the hungry furnace of grief.

Trethewey was born in 1966, in Gulfport, Mississippi, and grew up there, in Atlanta, and in New Orleans, the biracial daughter of poet and professor Eric Trethewey, a Canadian emigrant, and Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, a social worker. The two met at Kentucky State College and crossed the border to marry in Ohio, where interracial couples could legally wed. Her parents divorced when she was six, and Trethewey moved to Atlanta with her mother, who later married Joel Grimmette, an erratic and violent Vietnam War veteran. The family, including Trethewey’s younger half-brother, also named Joel, was subjected to years of psychological, emotional, and physical abuse at the hands of her stepfather. Fearing for her and her family’s safety, Turnbough eventually divorced Grimmette; a year later Grimmette shot and killed her. Trethewey was just nineteen, at the end of her freshman year at the University of Georgia in Athens, when her mother was murdered.

That would have been enough trauma for a lifetime, for anyone—but there were more devastating losses to come. They arrived in step with some of the highest accolades possible in a poet’s career: Hurricane Katrina rendered the Gulfport home of Trethewey’s maternal grandmother, Leretta Dixon Turnbough, uninhabitable just two years before Trethewey would win a Pulitzer Prize, in 2007, for her poetry collection (Houghton Mifflin). A year later, Leretta Dixon Turnbough died. This additional loss in her matrilineal line was particularly hard for Trethewey to bear; her nana, who had been a seamstress, had always seemed to stitch a layer of protection around Trethewey. In

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