Friday, March 05, 2004

Natasha Trethewey - Decatur, GA

No city offers a more stunning transition from its ring of highways and interstates to its inner hub of suburban plots. Coming into Atlanta - really, anything within 70 miles - is like driving on the Ugly Highway to Ugly Town. The gray slabs extend to 4 and 5 lanes in every direction. Cloverleaf after cloverleaf - almost all of them under construction - web together endlessly. The pines that line the road obscure everything else that might resemble a place one would want to spend some time, and the cars just hurtle onward, onward, grim death grip, smoldering tires, 18 wheelers pinning you into one lane or the other.

But once you leave that behind - and in our case, slip into Avondale, an eastern suburb - large sweeping yards and one-story ranch houses line each road. Businesses cluster at intersections, but as soon as you leave them behind you are back in another pretty neighborhood. They all have churches with towering steeples, small parks with grinning kids. Houses are brick, surrounded by bushes and trees. It looks like a great place to live until we see a sign that says: "1 Bedroom Townhouses from the low $500,000s." Never mind, but it's still pretty.

We curl Winnie Cooper in and around Avondale until we hit Decatur, another beautiful eastern suburb. Natasha has told us there's a church parking lot near her, and we find it easily. We've been back in Winnie for about a week after the long cold February trip without her, and everything is cozy once again. I leave my wife behind - she's always happy to have some time to herself to catch up on her own stuff, bills, email, writing her own blog, just time to think about what a swell guy she could have married had it not been for me - and I stroll across the street to the gigantic 2-story set of condos where I'll find Natasha.

The building has all the cool Southern stuff, the columns, the weathered brick - though I learn it's sort of faux-weathered. It's from the 30s, was a boarding house for years, and for the last few a set of small but cozy condos. I poke my foot in the black dirt along a walkway and straighten some pink and yellow pansies that look like they're fixing to go across the road. When they're back in place, I go to the front door.

Natasha buzzes me up and I meet her and her husband. We stand in their glittering kitchen - not just spectacularly clean, but ringed with stainless steel appliances - and then Natasha and I go and sit on two overstuffed couches in the living room. I tell her a little about the most recent steps in the journey and we get to the questions.

She was born in Mississippi, and now makes her home next door in Georgia. While she's spent time elsewhere - and professes a love of the northeast, where she has spent time earning her MFA and completing a fellowship - she's back home in a sense here in suburban Atlanta. She talks about the Mississippi coast, her grandmother's house - which is surrounded by rural beauty on one side and pinned into the earth by a gigantic highway billboard pillar on the other - and feels totally at ease in this pretty New South suburb. She loves sitting on the wrought iron-ringed porch, and she has a wonderful academic home just 5 minutes at Emory.

I'm interested in her second book, Bellocq's Ophelia, a collection of poems inspired by a number of turn of the century photographs of prostitutes by E. J. Bellocq. The research was intensive, and Natasha used everything at her disposal, including her own youth along the Gulf Coast, and her father's (the poet Eric Trethewey) tenure at Tulane University.

We finish chatting and I encourage her out to the front of the building to get some shots. She hates the camera, and has professed a real distrust of the whole process, but the photos are great. I can tell it's irking her to pose there, but what can I do. I try to get her to smile and she does, a big happy grin. I click fast, and let her go back inside.