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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Historicizing Hurricanes

Southern Quarterly Review


Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  By Natasha Trethewey (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010.  127 pp. Cloth: $22.95.  ISBN-13: 978-0-8203-3381-6.)

                Unlike her earlier collections of poetry ---Domestic Work (2000), Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), and Native Guard (2006), Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast must compete in a dense historical and historicized space of specialized traumas.  The bid for attention among hundreds of books of contemporary poetry is mild when compared with the ferocity that swirls among the multiple forms of commentary on the Storm (Hurricane Katrina) as that tragic event is referred to in New Orleans.  The cause of such ferocity is not malice enacted by any of the artists or survivors who articulate feelings and insights about the Storm.  It is, on the contrary, the result of the depth and magnitude of pain attached to the event that calls into question the legitimacy of one’s speaking about or for or of giving aesthetic form to something that resists representation.  It is the possibility of succeeding in realizing a truth that is the question, for negotiating the facts and the myths surrounding August 29, 2005 and the landfall of a hurricane involves exposure of the material and the immaterial.  The problem is truly more philosophical than poetic.  As Elaine Scarry noted in a very pointed way in Resisting Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), some entities defy representation.  The abstract may be “beyond the reach of speech and writing,” and the concrete might be left “outside the reflexes of language.”  In matters pertaining to the abstract and the concrete in our lives, “what is overtly at issue is the knowability of the world, and that knowability depends on its susceptibility to representation” (3).

                Trethewey is to be commended for achieving a resolution of poetic and philosophical issues, albeit a contingent one, in Beyond Katrina.  The book resolves, by virtue of its lucidity, some problems of evaluating works about Hurricane Katrina.  In addition, Beyond Katrina clarifies some matters germane to the interpretation of Trethewey’s poetry to date, because she meditates intensely on memory, history, and the act of writing.  Any doubts regarding the legitimacy of speaking by a person who was not there during and in the immediate aftermath of the Storm are set to rest by (1) the fact that Trethewey had kin, family, who were survivors of Katrina’s ravaging and (2) the fact that she seeks to fully historicize hurricanes in general and to put certain storms of family life into perspective.  Moreover, the value of Beyond Katrina is increased by Trethewey’s incorporating portions of her earlier writing and family photographs as evidence of authenticity.  The photographs make the references to Son Dixon, Sugar, and the Owl Club, North Gulfport in Domestic Work visual as well as verbal.  Trethewey’s critique of the photograph as a means of objectifying what ought perhaps be left human and finite in Bellocq’s Ophelia swerves into poignant irony when she explains in Beyond Katrina why she is at peace with the fact that a certain snapshot of herself and her brother is lost. The deep reasons for the necessity of reconstructing the history of the South and of Mississippi so carefully researched in Native Guard are further illuminated in Trethewey’s reconstructing a personal and public history of Gulfport.

                Trethewey thoroughly domesticates her reconstruction in the “Prologue” for Beyond Katrina by noting that she “like many people from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, are haunted  --  even at the edges of consciousness  --  by the possibility of a natural disaster” (1).  The confession about being haunted provides a special clue about her meditation, about where it might fit in the continuing history of publications about responses to Hurricane Katrina and in the long history of Southern literature.  Although Mississippi writers have no monopoly on being haunted, we do share with other Southern writers a preoccupation with dimensions of being haunted; indeed, we might argue that Southern writers respond with greater alacrity than do other American writers to the ineluctable demands that one’s location in time can make on human consciousness; we are perhaps more sensitive to the onus of acknowledging and recording how we, to echo the phrasing of William Faulkner, endure and prevail. Haunting is the bite of inwit.

                Contemporary writers and their readers (at least those who have not been undone by the glamour of ahistorical identity) are forcefully reminded that literature may seem to ensure universality and transcendence, but they are not blinded to the fact that appearance delivers a most imperfect and treacherous image of reality.  In the regions of human cognition, which Americans in general so freely and subconsciously attempt to racialize, what seems to be is most often in actuality what does not exist.  In Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), Fred Hobson theorized that  

                …the act of telling about the South (particularly when shame and guilt motivate the telling)

                can be among other things an act of confession, even catharsis -- of purging oneself of haunting

                memories and fears in the hope that they will haunt no more, but always with the dangerous

                possibility that to explore and reveal is to dredge up painful memories which without confession

                would not be brought o the surface (7-8).

Hobson’s astute observation is nicely complicated in Dorothy Stringer’s “Not Even Past”: Race, Historical Trauma, and Subjectivity in Faulkner, Larsen and Van Vechten (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).  Stringer contends that overlapping of time and text can produce a mapping “between writing and the writing process, between traumatic symptom and critical recognition of trauma, between historical events of extreme violence and subsequent, quotidian psychic life” (2-3).  As a poet endowed with a very clear sense of historical obligations and the contextual powers of memory and  history, Trethewey orients us to meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and hurricanes and the lives of ordinary people by drawing attention to a contemporary function of poetry.  The rage to speak is an existential imperative; insofar as Beyond Katrina is a quest for psychic balance in the aftermath of devastation, Trethewey seeks to articulate how poetry assists us to answer how we are going to live in the prisonhouse of nature and language.

                She recognizes the centrality of poetics in the act of writing about disasters, both the natural ones and those resulting from man-made creations. The prologue of her book informs us that the poems “Providence” and “Theories of Time and Space,” which were published in Native Guard, acquired special significance in the act of writing Beyond Katrina.  “Providence” has its origins in family stories about Hurricane Camille’s devastation of the Gulf Coast in 1969, and its closing lines refer to how a reflection in water disappears when a person touches it. The word “providence” has particular meaning in Early American literature and in American historiography, and it is crucial Trethewey makes such an allusion. The word has religion-oriented currency in some discourses on Hurricane Katrina, but its secular denotation reminds us that to be provident or to secure a future includes the uses of photography, a subject that is critical in the poetics of Michael S. Harper and Trethewey.  The pre-Katrina “Theories of Time and Space,” which resonates Einstein’s theory of relativity and the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty, opens with the haunting assertion

                You can get there from here, though

                there’s no going home.

                Everywhere you go will be somewhere

                you’ve never been…. (Beyond Katrina 5)

became after August 2005, Trethewey confesses, “quite literal: so much of what I’d known of my home was either gone or forever changed” (Beyond Katrina 2). At the end of this poem which initiates the meditation as a “tome of memory,” the couplet “The photograph ---who you were --/ will be waiting when you return” alerts us that photography can be a mode of “writing” and that the poet’s use of family photographs, her brother’s letters, and memory to reconstruct that which has been hidden or invisible is a method of self-conscious interpretation in the effort to create history as a site of memory (lieux de mémoire).  Beyond Katrina echoes at once the ironies of Bellocq’s Ophelia and the objectives of Domestic Work and Native Guard.

                As the most recent book in Trethewey’s oeuvre, Beyond Katrina is a fascinating addition to the American literary landscape Philip C. Kolin and Susan Swartwout describe in the editors’ introduction for Hurricane Blues: Poems about Katrina and Rita (Cape Girardeau: Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2006):

Katrina has given poets a unique anatomy lesson about the body politic and the American character of that body.  The hurricane gave its name, its terrors, and its anger to a new canon of American poetry and a new sense of national responsibility for rebuilding and restoring (16).

What Kolin and Swartwout mention about change in poetry applies equally to prose accounts of Katrina and other natural disasters and to works that address trauma by way of blending poetry, prose, and photographs.  Is it only a matter of accident that Beyond Katrina should stir up memory of Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) or James Agee’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men ( 1941)?  Comparing it to other memorable books on Katrina ---for example, Phyllis Montana-Leblanc’s Not Just the Levees Broke (New York: Atria, 2008), Billy Sothern’s Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), Overcoming Katrina: African American Voices from the Crescent City and Beyond (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), edited by D’Ann R. Penner and Keith C. Ferdinand---one is reminded of a simple geographical fact: the Gulf Coast of the United States extends from Texas to Florida.  Gulfport, Mississippi is as worthy of attention as New Orleans.  Moreover, we often forget that our literary and political responses to Katrina as features of national remembering are inflected by the tragedies and aftermath of September 11, 2001, are inflected by dread.

                Focusing on the past and present in Gulfport, Beyond Katrina brings the autobiographical act to the foreground.  As is the case with American literature in general, much of what we think about Southern literature is influenced by autobiographical writing or writing based on autobiographical experiences.  Like such writers as Ellen Douglas, William Faulkner, Sterling D. Plumpp, Willie Morris, Richard Wright, and Eudora Welty –Mississippians who sought to tell a story always untold , Trethewey uses her personal voice to account for aspects of continuity, change, and reconfiguration. Rather than imposing a strict chronological pattern upon the struggles of her mother’s African American family and its negotiations with hurricanes in a racialized and multiracial space, she chooses to be the pilgrim who must gather threads of public history and swatches of family memory in order to quilt a story.

 She does not begin with the migration of her maternal , working-class ancestors from the Mississippi Delta to the Gulf Coast in the early part of the twentieth century but with her own return in 2007 to Gulfport from Atlanta, the place where her grandmother lived  in yearning to return “home” after “riding out” and surviving Hurricane Katrina.  At ninety-one, her grandmother , upon whose life several of the poems in Domestic Work had been based,  “tries to piece together the events of the previous two years.  She has layered on the old story of Camille the new story of Katrina.  Between the two, there is the suggestion of both a narrative and a metanarrative  --  the way she both remembers and forgets, the erasures, and how intricately intertwined memory and forgetting always are” (Beyond Katrina 11).  Rita Dove noted in her introduction for Domestic Work that Trethewey had resisted the lure of autobiography; in Beyond Katrina, that lure is necessary to endow the story with authenticity, and Trethewey embraces it with verve.  Through the perspectives afforded by the  windows of autobiography , she accomplishes the yoking of narrative and metanarrative and explores the devastated but recovering “physical landscape as well as the landscape of our cultural memory”(11).

By attending to the specifics of Trethewey’s autobiographical efforts to discover the human  interiority of suffering hurricanes, we are made aware of what most sets Beyond Katrina apart from other Katrina narratives: Trethewey’s disciplined recycling of the historicizing possibilities implicit in her earlier books of poetry and her brave, honest confrontation of how her brother Joe’s life unraveled  along with historic neighborhoods in the years after Hurricane Katrina, in the midst of Gulfport’s becoming again a site for Mississippi’s thriving casino enterprises . The latter aligns a major thread of concern in the book with the sibling tragedy so poignantly documented  in John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984), adding significantly to a tradition of history and memory in African American culture.  The restorative recycling links the book to the urgency of remembering forgotten portions of Mississippi and Civil War history that was dealt with in Native Guard; the urgency of historical research in telling how the objectification of the photograph, whether innocent or malicious, functions in cultural memory, the urgency of the critique accomplished in Bellocq’s Ophelia; the urgency of the family stories rescued in Domestic Work. 

For Trethewey, writing Beyond Katrina marked an obligatory stage in her growth as a poet, as a contributor to American literature and national memory.  Her meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is certainly a “pointing to a destination, some place not far up the road” (123), a space where in time her readers can recognize, theorize, and  fulfill their diverse obligations in the making of history.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Dillard University

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