“[U]nless you are at home in the metaphor . . . you are not safe anywhere,” wrote Robert Frost. “Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness . . . You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.”
In this devastating memoir, former US poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey reckons with the force of metaphor. Poetry, you might say, is the medium of metaphor – every line and image brimming with double meaning. But memoir – the mode of real life, of remembering – is at once figurative and literal. These things happened, but what happens when you put words to them?
“Three weeks after my mother is dead I dream of her,” goes the opening line. My mother is dead. It’s stark and slicing. It breaks the sentence (surely “my mother has died” would be syntactically more agreeable) and catches in your mind.
Therein, “my mother is dead” hangs over the narrative. Her death is the result of a murder at the hands of her second husband, a black maintenance worker called Joel. That we know this from the outset infuses everything with retrospective meaning.
When childhood scrapes leave “the familiar scent of blood” on Natasha’s hands, it is darkened with significance. When she observes the delicacy of her mother’s bare neck “as if no amount of armour could shield such a vulnerable spot” ominousness lingers. Even the book’s title, Memorial Drive, the street on which they lived in the final year of her mother’s life seems uncannily weighted.
The book is cleverly crafted, insightful and moving. The early sections focus on race and race relations in the American South. Trethewey was born in 1966 to a black mother and white father. Her very existence is charged. “What was I?” she asks, puzzling at the difference between her parents’ skin tones. She notices the differences in their experiences moving through the world, and from early on feels “a profound sense of dislocation” everywhere she goes.
Trethewey observes astutely the ways in which racial prejudices are passed down and repeated. In Mississippi, “separation of the races was still the way of things, maintained by custom if not by law”. When, terrifyingly, the Klan burns a cross in her grandmother’s garden, Natasha is too young to remember but feels “the night lives in my memory as experience”.
The bulk of the text takes place in Atlanta, a city “in the midst of dramatic demographic, social, and political change”, but where Natasha and her mother would find themselves more oppressed than ever, under the regime of Joel.
Joel would subject them to years of abuse: tormenting them both, battering her mother and eventually growing psychotic in his conviction that “if I can’t have [Natasha’s mother], nobody will”. Rather than allow her to leave him, he tries, multiple times, to murder her. We know the ending from the beginning – from that harrowing first line: “my mother is dead”. And we are helpless. We can do nothing but read on.
There is a cool aloofness to the way Trethewey depicts Joel. He is a war veteran – “when he refused to eat spaghetti, it was because of the ‘worms’ he’d seen while in the army; Vietnam, when I asked about his [misshapen] feet”.
You might be inclined to make a connection between the early comments on race in America and this: the hypocrisy of allowing a black man to fight for a country that doesn’t honour his rights. But Trethewey does not. Nor does she entertain the idea that his later mental health problems might be linked to war. To do so would afford him a dignity he does not deserve: the dignity of logic and narrative. “Most likely he’d been born that way,” she says, of his feet – a remark that might apply to every aspect of the man.
Trethewey engages, as she writes, with the significance of what she is doing. “Perhaps that’s the trick the mind plays in grappling to make meaning of events of the past,” she ponders, “to find a narrative thread, to read – looking back – the signs we did not pay attention to in the moment”.
The central question comes from a dream where her mother appears, a gaping hole in her forehead, asking “Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?” This family’s wound will not heal. But the author’s deference to the signs she perceives (or indeed creates) brings a sort of redemption.
Story, symbolism, metaphor are, you could say, a sort of faith – a willed belief in something you have fabricated in order to find meaning.
“Do you know what it means . . . ?” her mother asks, crucially. There is power in searching for that meaning, and in creating it.