“Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast” By Natasha Trethewey
review by MEREDITH MCKINNIE
“Names are talismans of memory too – Katrina, Camille. Perhaps this is why we name our storms.”
When we think of Hurricane Katrina, we think of New Orleans. The media’s fascination with the Big Easy resonated across our screens as we watched people stranded on rooftops, wading through rising water, drifting through the rubble of former homes. In this book, Natasha Trethewey pays homage to her hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi, another site ravaged by the same storm. Through a collection of voices blended with her own family testimony, Trethewey picks up the pieces of the lives affected by the wreckage, the people who nurtured her during childhood, the community that gives her strength. In a beautiful collection of interviews, city history, family pictures, letters, and her beloved poetry, Trethewey reassembles the pieces of the lives and history the flood waters came to wash away.
In one of the included poems, Trethewey writes:
“You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.
Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been.”
In returning home after the waters receded, Trethewey finds a community trying against all financial obstacles, to rebuild, to recover what had been lost, to put the pieces back together that don’t quite fit the same. In her community’s stories, she finds glimpses of hope, but also a harsh awareness of reality. She writes, “A preferred narrative is one of the common bonds between people in a time of crisis.” We see this locally, as after any natural disaster, T-shirts are printed with “Ruston Strong” or “Monroe Proud.” We focus on the positive, the way a community comes together in times of crisis, bonded by a shared experience that ruffles the edges of difference. But in those uplifting messages, struggle still remains. Trethewey’s mediation on the Gulf Coast is a testament to the power of community and the reality of recovery. As shown in the people’s testimonies, the memory of before and after can span decades or just until the next storm comes.
This mediation is intimate, heartbreaking, informative, and shows the resilience and spirit of the people who still call the Gulf Coast home. Trethewey was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Native Guard. A former Poet Laureate of Mississippi, Trethewey was named United States Poet Laureate in 2012 and 2013.
“Perhaps this is the most we can hope for: that as the memory of the hurricane fades into the background of our collective imagination, the worst experiences of it receding into the distance, Katrina may become, like Camille before it, a cautionary tale and marker of time – a way to link the narratives of our past to our ever-evolving future: Before and After.”