Beyond Katrina

THOSE FAMILIAR with Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry know she often focuses — richly, and with great observational power — on the idea of home: how a home is made and lost and lives in one’s imagination, how family and community are deeply entwined with the landscape, and how this landscape influences psychology. These readers will not be surprised to learn, then, that the devastation wrought by Katrina on Trethewey’s native ground of Gulfport, Mississippi, is the inspiration for her latest book, though they may be surprised to learn that Trethewey has turned to prose for her extended meditation. Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast reveals that Trethewey feels comfortable moving beyond line breaks.

Trethewey’s leitmotif is the different roles stories play before, during, and after tragedy. She presents a richness of voices, not just her own and those of her close family members, but also broader cultural narratives and the narratives imposed on the landscape itself. The book begins with a look at the Mississippi Gulf Coast before the storm, profiling both long-term residents and the newer folk drawn by the gaming industry, “which helped foment the seafood industry’s decline” and damaged the wetlands. How this “changing narrative, since 1992, of the landscape of historic buildings into a casino landscape of neon and flashing lights and parking decks” ultimately leads to the narrative of Katrina is a point she doesn’t belabor, because she doesn’t need to. Bolstering these profiles and meditations are photos and poems, as if Trethewey is eager to present many kinds of stories through many kinds of storytelling.

The book’s second section picks up in 2009, focusing on the post-Katrina landscape as a palimpsest of revisions — to the stories of survivors, to the landmarks that exist only in memories and in directions which might begin, “Turn right at the corner where the fruit stand used to be,” and to Trethewey’s own changing understanding of her home. She notes, “Rebuilding is also about remembering.” We see the inadequacy of the post-Katrina “recovery,” particularly for the African-American communities of the Gulf Coast, through the experiences of Trethewey’s brother, Joe, who was turned down for a small-business loan and left without work after government contractors pulled out. Joe makes the “desperate decision” to transport cocaine and gets arrested. The most moving scene in this section tells of the funeral of Trethewey’s grandmother. The church — the same one for which the grandmother, years ago, had made the curtains — was not yet repaired. Yet services were held there, despite the blown-out windows where birds flew in and out and a busted marquis where “a few letters hung on — an O on its side, what looked to be a broken F. Missing its smaller arm, it resembled the gallows in a child’s game of hangman.” To this scene a police car arrives, with two officers bringing Joe, shackled at the ankles and cuffed at the wrists, temporarily released from prison to attend the “home-going” ceremony of his grandmother.

The end of the book lacks a little of Trethewey’s powerful voice, partially because she is living in Atlanta and must rely on local witnesses. Though one wishes Joe possessed his sister’s keen eye for details, the long series of letters he sends from prison provide a narrative of “personal recovery.” Trethewey sees “in his contemplation the incorporation of a new narrative, one that integrates his past with the uncertain future he faces — his story on a parallel track with the evolving story of memory, rebuilding, and recovery on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.” As a whole, this meditation on Gulf Coast stories provides an important addition to our collective story of how Katrina shaped, and shapes, our nation.