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Moving 'Beyond Katrina' Through Poetry And Prose

On one of her trips back to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey noticed a sign in front of a Baptist church emblazoned with this command: "Believe the report of the Lord. Face the things that confront you."

As she surveys the storm-battered landscape of the place she once called home, Trethewey takes those words to heart. Like the gifted memoirist she proves to be in the pages of Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, she indeed faces and confronts demons from her past and the present. The result is a book as moving and compelling as Trethewey's poetry.

"When we begin to imagine a future in which the places of our past no longer exist, we see ruin," Trethewey writes. The ruin and destruction Trethewey reference move beyond the eroding beaches and ancient uprooted live oak trees that line the Gulf Coast. What she explores with emotional depth and sensitivity is the psychic toll Katrina has taken on her family and on the community they live in.

It's been five years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans. Without a doubt, this fall will bring a number of books to a growing body of literature on this disaster. What makes Beyond Katrina stand out in the crowded landscape of post-Katrina literature is the raw, personal nature of the story Trethewey tells, as well as the poetic language she uses to tell the tale. She moves the reader beyond the uplifting narrative of rebuilding represented by each new, glitzy casino along the shores of the Mississippi Gulf, beyond the gambling palaces, and a few miles up Highway 49 into the working-class, African-American, North Gulfport.

As a girl, Trethewey spent her summers in North Gulfport with her grandmother. Her brother Joe came to live in the town after his father — Trethewey's stepfather — murdered their mother. Although her grandmother must have seen her daughter's murderer when she looked at Joe, the family somehow found a way to look beyond that personal tragedy. Perhaps to counter this perception, Joe seems to assume the persona of her grandmother's beloved brother, Son Dixon — a legendary nightclub owner and African-American entrepreneur — and immerses himself in his Uncle Son's business of owning and renovating shotgun houses in North Gulfport.

Before Katrina, Joe's life and business is on track. After Katrina, forces of nature and circumstance lead to his imprisonment. To tell the story of Joe's attempt to rebuild his life and the simple tragic act that leads to his incarceration, she mixes prose, poetry, personal letters and what few childhood photographs survived the storm.

Beyond Katrina is just what the subtitle says it is: a meditation. But within this book's quiet thoughts lies a powerful story of things long gone that will never come back. What is lost can only be captured by memory. And Trethewey's prose captures memory with poetic precision.

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W. Ralph Eubanks