Two weeks ago, on a weekend trip to Chicago, I read Natasha Tretheway’s Memorial Drive. Couldn’t put it down. I hadn’t been that keen to read it—the story of her mother’s murder in Atlanta when Tretheway was 19. I’ve been interested in Tretheway’s poetry—in her use of form, particularly, and of course in her subject matter. But this book seemed too … topical? Is that the word? I wanted something more nebulous, ruminative, poetic. Not a murder mystery (I don’t read true crime or thrillers.) And then I began reading and was hooked, drawn in by imagery and voice, by the hollow at the heart of this awful story that Tretheway tries to fill but can’t.
Her mother was killed on June 5, 1985. Midway through the book I wondered what I’d been doing that same day, and I realized I was probably in Granada marking Lorca’s birthday at the end of my first year on the Fulbright. Stupefied by the beauty of the poppy fields on the train route south from Madrid, by the blaring symbolism of nearly everything I beheld (those blood red fields seeming to hold Lorca’s death in their folds). In sensory overload after seeing my first (and to date only) Corpus Cristi procession, the ethereal march of the sacrament through Granada’s canopied streets, attended by priests in frilly little-girl gowns. I remember a long, air-conditioned lunch afterward with newly met strangers, Americans, that afternoon.
Tretheway writes a lot about Lorca at the end of her book, leaning on him to examine the idea of duende, which she describes as “a demon that drives an artist, causing trouble or pain and an acute awareness of death.” She doesn’t mention the coincidence that her mother was murdered on what would have been the 87th birthday of the murdered poet. Twinned beings, both intimately in touch with the cruelty of our kind (racism, Fascism, machismo, domestic assault, guns). I’m not sure what to make of this chronological link. There’s something haunting, maybe even beautiful, in the fact that Tretheway herself doesn’t make the link—as if it would be too much, too neat. As if the hole left by her mother’s death—by Lorca’s death—is too big for coincidence. What if, instead, there’s a vast, collective cloud of grief and sacrifice and love hovering in our atmosphere, one big enough for each of us to dip into when we need it? Wafer into intinction cup; a moment’s communion.