Author: Natasha Trethewey
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
08/29/2011 Natasha Trethewey is best known as a poet. She is the author of three collections: "Domestic Work," "Bellocq''s Ophelia," set in New Orleans, and the volume for which she received the Pulitzer Prize, "Native Guard," published in 2006.
After teaching for some time at Auburn, Trethewey moved to Emory University where she now holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry.
Partly raised in Gulfport, Mississippi, Trethewey, in "Native Guard," explored and celebrated the second regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first official black units in the Union Army. Stationed on Ship Island off of Gulfport, these men, many of them former slaves, guarded the fort in which Confederate prisoners were housed. Their story had been mostly forgotten. In "Native Guard" Trethewey revived that story and memorialized it in poetry.
Now, in "Beyond Katrina," she is doing something of the same for the black citizens of Gulfport who survived Katrina, especially her brother Joe.
"Beyond Katrina" is a volume of mixed genres. In addition to sections of local history, her own childhood memories and Joe's letters, Trethewey has included a number of her own poems, inspired by the places and events.
In preparing this volume, Trethewey revisits her home place many times and comes to believe that the story of Gulfport has not been adequately told, having been obscured in two ways.
First, Gulfport was eclipsed in general by the attention given Katrina and New Orleans: the hurricane itself, the breached levies, the disgraceful lack of government response.
Second, the myth that carried the Gulfport story was a success myth, with "little- engine-that-could nostalgia," the "poor little state [Mississippi] that cleaned up, rebuilt, and succeeded in ways that Louisiana failed." Both narratives—a word Trethewey is far too fond of—omit what was happening to the Mississippi Gulf Coast environment before Katrina, and the ways in which the poor of that region were ignored afterwards.
In this "Meditation" Trethewey quickly recounts some of that coast's recent history. For some time there has been a filling in of wetlands and a general destruction of the natural environment, and this, while not rare, is never good.
Special to this region however are "the boats," the gambling casinos about which everyone seems ambivalent. Yes, they produce jobs and tax revenue but they also produce a certain amount of social degradation and long lines of pay-day loan shops.
While her brother Joe may not be exactly typical of anything, he serves in this story as a metaphor, an example of what can and did happen, and a very personal and painful one.
Joe inherited from a successful, entrepreneurial great-uncle, Son Dixon, a number of small, run-down, one-family houses in the black section of town, North Gulfport. Joe, honest, hard-working, was fixing up those houses to rent cheaply, pouring all his resources, financial and physical, into this project.
He was praised for his efforts. As he was working, painting, putting in new floors and carpet, neighbors would come by and say "Thank you" and "Man, I appreciate what you're doing for the community."
Joe put all his money into the renovations. There was none for insurance, and when Katrina made landfall, he lost it all.
In the immediate aftermath, Joe worked in emergency jobs, cleaning up storm debris, reclaiming the beaches; there was money for those projects, to build roads and get the casinos up and going, but not for him. When these jobs ran out, Joe couldn't pay his property taxes.
In desperation, he accepted an offer to transport some cocaine, and in 2008 was caught, arrested and sent to prison.
Joe's letters to his sister, heartfelt and authentic, are powerful and personal—no historical overview here. Writing about her brother, Trethewey's anguish for the Mississippi Gulf Coast and brother Joe is palpable.