How Poetry Can Guide Us Through Trauma

Culture A former U.S. poet laureate’s new memoir reflects on the power of storytelling to help us grieve—a

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Natasha Trethewey / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In her foundational 1977 essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” the Black feminist writer Audre Lorde argued that the art form transcends the constraints of the written word. Poetry doesn’t just reflect the world as it exists, she insisted; rather, it ushers in a new one. “It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action,” Lorde wrote. Later, she added that “there are no new ideas … only new ways of making them felt.”

In recent months, as we trudge through the morass of These Unprecedented Times, I’ve returned often to Lorde’s words. Poems have alchemized death and imagined the continuation of lives cut short by racist violence. They’ve given texture to the “sudden strangeness” of life brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, offering comfort to countless readers. In moments of uncertainty, poetry has illuminated bridges to the past—and shown how the act of remembering might alter the future.

I thought of Lorde’s exhortation again as I read Memorial Drive, the new memoir from the former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. In her latest book, the poet traces the years leading up to, and after, the day her mother was shot and killed by Trethewey’s stepfather. Though written in prose, Trethwey’s memoir is awash in metaphor, its language a meditation on the role that poetry—and storytelling more broadly—can play in reconciling trauma. In the depth and clarity of her retrospective study, Trethewey also offers lessons for surviving the cataclysms of the present.

That resonance comes naturally: For Trethewey, her mother’s killing is inextricable from the violence that shaped the United States, and especially the South, where she was raised. “My mother was murdered on Memorial Drive. That [street] is also the site of Stone Mountain that honors the memory of the Confederacy and this huge national wound of war, rape, and violence,” she said of the infamous Georgia monument when we spoke recently. “It took me a while to realize that it was the literal juxtaposition that had formed for me the lasting metaphor of my own project—to lay these wounds and this grief, both personal and national, side by side.”

Memorial Drive is an exercise in unshrouding that which has been purposely hidden, whether by history or by oneself. So writing it required Trethewey to make her grief felt, as Lorde says, in new ways. “Three decades is a long time to get to know the contours of loss, to become intimate with one’s own bereavement,” Trethewey writes in the final pages of the memoir. “You get used to it. Most days it is a distant thing, always on the horizon, sailing toward me with its difficult cargo.” Confronting that “distant thing” in prose meant that Trethewey needed to bridge the gap between herself and the pain. But Trethewey’s words also make a rhetorical linkage to history: What more “difficult cargo” has sailed toward the southern states than the people once snatched from their homelands, those whose labor constructed the region?

The challenge of memoir also led Trethewey to write her first poems that directly address her mother’s death. In “Articulation,” which ended up being published in Monument, her 2018 book of poetry, Trethewey describes a dream in which her mother appears to her with a gunshot wound three weeks after the murder. In the final quatrain, Trethewey ties her writing to the task of preserving her mother’s memory:

How, then, could I not answer her life

with mine, she who saved me with hers?

And how could I not, bathed in the light
of her wound, find my calling there?

The image of her late mother also surfaces in Memorial Drive. “When I begin to say out loud that I am going to write about my mother, to tell the story of those years I’ve tried to forget, I have more dreams about her in a span of weeks than in all the years she’s been gone,” Trethewey writes. But approaching the same dream via different modes of writing helped her arrive at different insights. “It's like I need more than one form to address it,” she told me.

Memorial Drive’s many reflections on storytelling as a pathway to survival don’t apply only to poets, or even to those who would readily call themselves writers. Throughout her memoir, Trethewey meditates on the personal power of coming back to images and memories, whether in poetry or in prose. “I think that's one of the places I find the most meaning—in repetition and the way that something not only repeats but also is transformed through repetition,” Trethewey said. “I think that's why I have revisited not only that [same] dream, but other scenes from my childhood the older I get, because I see something that I might not have seen earlier by looking again and again at it.” Among the most wrenching sections of Memorial Drive are those in which Trethewey revisits these memories, not just to “see” more but to directly address her fifth-grade self.

In speaking to that girl, Trethewey rewrites the years she spent distancing herself from the knowledge that her stepfather abused her mother. Unlike the second-person invocations in “Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath,” a poem from Monument that’s scaffolded with examples of the cruel dismissals that domestic-violence victims face, Trethewey’s note to her younger self focuses inward. Utilizing the second person, the author reaches back and grants herself retroactive compassion. Recalling those early years in Memorial Drive, Trethewey describes the time her mother told her stepfather that a young Natasha had overheard his abuses:

Your shame and your sadness are doubled. You hear in your mother’s words a plea to get him to stop. You hear her desperate hope that his knowing you know, knowing you listen, will put an end to the abuse. As if the fact that you are a child, that you are only in the fifth grade, will change anything at all. And now you know that there is nothing you can do.

you know you know you know.

The repetition here is agonizing to read; Trethewey said she wanted the lines to feel like “a gnashing of my teeth” to the reader. But the acknowledgment of long-buried trauma and how it reverberates also functions as an unburdening. The refrain doesn’t just express anguish; it soothes, too. “I go back again and again to [the words of the English poet Percy Bysshe] Shelley—‘Poetry is the mirror that makes beautiful that which is distorted,’” Trethewey told me. “It is the wonderful things you can do with language, the sonic textures and repetition …  that actually make whatever it is I’m writing about lighter.” She continued: “Because it’s pure pleasure. It’s pure joy when ... I’m making a poem or when I’m trying to bring the same kind of poetic lyricism to a page of prose. The levity is the joy of making—of the made thing.”

Even when poetry or narrative doesn’t lift personal burdens, it can offer a lens through which to understand the world. Consider, for example, one work from another former U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith. In “Declaration,” Smith redacts portions of the Declaration of Independence, using an art form known as erasure to create a kind of found poem.

Rather than obfuscating existing truth, though, it gives rise to additional meaning. Smith recasts the Founding Fathers’ grievances, using them to capture the harms they visited upon the people they enslaved (and the ripple effects of that original violence). The poem reappraises a fundamental document of American history, connecting it directly to the tragedies it wrought.

We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration
and settlement here.

                                       —taken Captive

                                                                      on the high Seas

                                                                                                       to bear—

Like Smith’s “Declaration,” the work of the poet Kevin Young disrupts the linearity of time, and of grief. Book of Hours, his 2014 collection, takes its name from the popular Christian prayer devotional. In it, Young chronicles the days that follow his father’s death, placing them in the same timeline as those leading up to a far more joyful milestone: the birth of his son. The connection between sorrow and hope is one that Young explored at length while compiling the 2010 anthology The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing. That tension and promise animates Trethewey’s approach to writing, too. When we spoke, she mentioned a piece by the German-born poet Lisel Mueller called “When I Am Asked,” in which Mueller writes first of “the indifference of nature” before describing a “brilliant June day” soon after her mother’s death. Mueller concludes that she

placed my grief   

in the mouth of language,   

the only thing that would grieve with me

Trethewey, whose mother also died in June, sees the poem as a heavy but hopeful reminder. “It's that sentiment right there that again and again, I had to put my grief in the mouth of language, because it's the only thing that will grieve with me,” she told me. “I think a poem like that reminds us of both the isolation that you can feel when you're grieving, but also the communal feeling that you can feel because of language reminding you that this [process] is ancient and ongoing.”

The pains being exorcised in America now are ancient and ongoing, too—no matter how unprecedented the times. Whether by conveying the scale of national grief during a pandemic, or exposing the relentlessness of racism, poetry has already created new ways of experiencing, and surviving, life’s darkest chapters. And in composing their words, and themselves, through this interminable gloom, Trethewey and other poets working now compose the rest of us, too.

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