Review by David Starkey
As she tells it in her memoir Memorial Drive, former United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey had a relatively idyllic childhood, especially for a biracial girl growing up in Mississippi in the 1960s. “This was the place of my childhood wonder, of my parents’ fleeting happiness, my unquestioning belief that my life would always be just as it was then, in the close arrangement of daily life with my mother’s family.”
However, by 1972, when she and her mother moved to Atlanta, her parents had divorced. Her father, the late poet Eric Trethewey, seems to have been often absent from the family home, even before her parents split up, but she cuts him a lot of slack, in part, no doubt, because of how he compares with the step-father who replaced him.
Joel Grimmette, Jr., was a Vietnam vet who never could get his life on track. He was petty, vindictive and sometimes violent. His wife outshone him in both intelligence and accomplishments, but she played down her superiority in an effort to keep Grimmette’s mental and physical abuse somewhat in check.
It didn’t work, and she ultimately escaped with Natasha and Joe, her son, with Grimmette. Still, Grimmette pursued Gwendolyn, ultimately kidnapping and attacking her. For that crime, he was convicted and sentenced in 1984. The following year, after he was released from prison, Grimmette murdered Gwendolyn.
Although the actual shooting doesn’t take place until the end of the book, it is central to everything in Memorial Drive (the name of the street on which Trethewey’s mother was killed), and, indeed, to Trethewey’s entire life. As readers of her exquisitely understated poetry know, Trethewey’s ongoing investigation of race in America often circles back to her mother’s death. However, where her poetry looks at the murder through the lens of form and crystalline images, Memorial Drive digs deep into the muck, examining and reeexaming every detail of her mother’s life that Trethewey can remember.
Memorial Drive also makes use of primary sources. One chapter includes the DeKalb County police report of Grimmette’s initial attack. Another chapter consists of transcripts of several interminable calls from Grimmette to Gwendolyn. While it’s true that she was keeping Joel on the phone to elicit examples of his homicidal rage, these transcripts also show her endless patience as she tries to convince her ex-husband to commit himself to a mental hospital. Most poignant is a twelve-page document, originally written on a yellow legal pad, in which Gwendolyn documents Joel’s abuse.
The book is relentless in its confrontation with tragedy, but fortunately Trethewey’s prose is every bit as engaging as her poetry. She acknowledges that writing Memorial Drive was far from cathartic for her, but that’s not to say the pain involved in revisiting these pivotal events isn’t without significance: “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.”