Beyond Katrina by Natasha Trethewey
And that’s it—that’s the last book for my “Old South, New South, No South” class. I think it’s really just hitting me that this is it—college is over. Knowing anything about my life for sure beyond a year out is over. Wearing chucks and band t-shirts every day is over. Not cooking for myself is over. (Thank you, Jesus.) But enough about me and my “problems”, which fade away in the face of what Beyond Katrina covers. Our professor has been talking up the book since day one of the class, and I’ve been looking forward to it because of that. Well, that and its slim size. That’s always appreciated when finals are posed to attack…
Beyond Katrina is a collection of poems and impressions recorded by current American poet laureate Natasha Trethewey about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While the bulk of media attention was focused on the man-made disaster when the levees broke in New Orleans, Trethewey focuses on her childhood home of Gulfport, Mississippi, which was devastated. Tracing her family’s history in the region from her grandmother to her brother, Trethewey focuses on how Gulfport was already compromised long before Hurricane Katrina came in and changed their lives.
I’m not a poet. If there’s something internal that makes you susceptible to poetry, I utterly lack it; I’m all about the prose, and practical prose at that. If writing is a magnificent telepathy, as Stephen King has had it, then the job of prose is to make sure that it doesn’t end up a game of telephone. I adore beautiful, heartwrenching prose, as long as it serves the story at hand. Some of my favorite lines in fiction don’t make sense unless you know where they are in context. (Much like fanvids.) So poetry, with its heavy image focus and chasms of potential for misinterpretation, scares the pants off of me. I once turned in a poem about my various methods of self-care for class and received feedback framing my coping mechanisms as my jerkbrain—not asking me if it was, but telling me. I abhor miscommunication. The problem is obviously me, of course, but that does mean that I have supreme difficulties connecting to poetry.
Which is why Beyond Katrina didn’t affect me as much as it did my classmates. The conversations it started–such as looking at prison culture in the South through the lens of the cycles of poverty started by Reconstruction—were startling and eye-opening, but the book itself… I felt lost during the beginning. Beyond Katrina began life as a series of lectures that were adapted into essays for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Such a birth rarely makes for the narrative through line I demand in nonfiction. But is it really fair to demand that from a poet who intended to capture impressions, not craft a narrative? It’s not, obviously, and so I must deal with my own shortcomings as a reader there. Trethewey’s focus is dizzingly far-roaming until, at last, it settles on the story of her brother.
In already volatile Gulfport (whose politicians elected to rebuild the resorts and casinos before anything else, screwing over the area’s poor residents), the storm destroys and exacerbates the already existing economic imbalances. Even Joe, Trethewey’s brother, who inherited a lot of property from a male relative, suffers, and ultimately, after attempting to live on the straight and narrow, turns to smuggling drugs in order to make ends meet. In examining not only the structures that created Joe’s choice but also Joe’s experiences in prison (Trethewey excerpts a great deal of his letters to her from jail), Trethewey critiques a prison culture perpetuated by the cycles of poverty caused by Reconstruction by humanizing it. There, at last, was the narrative thread I could grab onto, and it was utterly eye-opening. During our class discussion on the book, our professor read out loud one of Trethewey’s final poems, “Benediction”, and, to my great surprise, I found myself tearing up. “Benediction”, about Joe’s release from prison, ends with the image of Joe mastering “how to hold up the too-big pants with one hand, and in the other carry everything else he had” (125). Now that’s an image that instantly communicates: Joe trying to navigate life while handicapped by his status as both an African-American and an ex-con. I’m still woefully unpoetical, but that… well, I suppose that’s why Trethewey is the poet laureate, now isn’t it?
Bottom line: Due to my own difficulties with connecting with poetry, I had trouble connecting with Beyond Katrina until Trethewey focused in on the plight of her brother. If you would like.
I bought this used book off of Amazon.