Thrall: Poems

by Natasha Trethewey

Thrall examines the deeply ingrained and often unexamined notions of racial difference across time and space. Through a consideration of historical documents and paintings, Natasha Trethewey—Pulitzer-prize winning author of Native Guard—highlight the contours and complexities of her relationship with her white father and the ongoing history of race in America.

  • Format: eBook
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547840420
  • ISBN-10: 054784042X
  • Pages: 96
  • Publication Date: 08/28/2012
  • Carton Quantity: 1

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About the Book
About the Author
  • About the Book
    19th Poet Laureate of the United States

    “A powerful, beautifully crafted book.”—The Washington Post 


    “Ripe with the perfidies and paradoxes of thralldom both personal and public, it is utterly elegant.”—Elle  


    Charting the intersections of public and personal history, Thrall explores the historical, cultural, and social forces that determine the roles to which a mixed-race daughter and her white father are consigned. In a brilliant series of poems about the taxonomies of mixed unions, Natasha Trethewey creates a fluent and vivid backdrop to her own familial predicament. While tropes about captivity, bondage, knowledge, and enthrallment permeate the collection, Trethewey unflinchingly examines our shared past by reflecting on her history of small estrangements and by confronting the complexities of race and the deeply ingrained and unexamined notions of racial difference in America. 


    “Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall is simply the finest work of her already distinguished career . . . Rarely has any poetic intersection of cultural and personal histories felt more inevitable, more painful, or profound.” —David St. John, author of The Face: A Novella in Verse 


    “A voice that not only expands the position of [poetry], but helps us better understand ourselves. Her poems tell stories of loss and reckoning, both personal and historical.” —Dr. James Billington, Librarian of Congress



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  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    For my father

    I think by now the river must be thick
       with salmon. Late August, I imagine it

    as it was that morning: drizzle needling
       the surface, mist at the banks like a net

    settling around us—everything damp
       and shining. That morning, awkward

    and heavy in our hip waders, we stalked
       into the current and found our places—

    you upstream a few yards and out
       far deeper. You must remember how

    the river seeped in over your boots
       and you grew heavier with that defeat.

    All day I kept turning to watch you, how
       first you mimed our guide’s casting

    then cast your invisible line, slicing the sky
       between us; and later, rod in hand, how

    you tried—again and again—to find
       that perfect arc, flight of an insect

    skimming the river’s surface. Perhaps
       you recall I cast my line and reeled in

    two small trout we could not keep.
       Because I had to release them, I confess,

    I thought about the past—working
       the hooks loose, the fish writhing

    in my hands, each one slipping away
       before I could let go. I can tell you now

    that I tried to take it all in, record it
       for an elegy I’d write—one day—

    when the time came. Your daughter,
       I was that ruthless. What does it matter

    if I tell you I learned to be? You kept casting
       your line, and when it did not come back

    empty, it was tangled with mine. Some nights,
       dreaming, I step again into the small boat

    that carried us out and watch the bank receding—
       my back to where I know we are headed.

    Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus;
    or, The Mulata

    After the painting by Diego Velàzquez, c. 1619
    She is the vessels on the table before her:
    the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher
    clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red
    and upside down. Bent over, she is the mortar
    and the pestle at rest in the mortar—still angled
    in its posture of use. She is the stack of bowls
    and the bulb of garlic beside it, the basket hung
    by a nail on the wall and the white cloth bundled
    in it, the rag in the foreground recalling her hand.
    She’s the stain on the wall the size of her shadow—
    the color of blood, the shape of a thumb. She is echo
    of Jesus at table, framed in the scene behind her:
    his white corona, her white cap. Listening, she leans
    into what she knows. Light falls on half her face.

    Mano Prieta

    The green drapery is like a sheet of water
       behind us—a cascade in the backdrop
    of the photograph, a rushing current

    that would scatter us, carry us each
       away. This is 1969 and I am three—
    still light enough to be nearly the color

    of my father. His armchair is a throne
       and I am leaning into him, propped
    against his knees—his hand draped

    across my shoulder. On the chair’s arm
       my mother looms above me,
    perched at the edge as though

    she would fall off. The camera records
       her single gesture. Perhaps to still me,
    she presses my arm with a forefinger,

    makes visible a hypothesis of blood,
       its empire of words: the imprint
    on my body of her lovely dark hand.


    1. NOSTOS
    Here is the dark night
    of childhood—flickering

    lamplight, odd shadows
    on the walls—giant and flame

    projected through the clear
    frame of my father’s voice.

    Here is the past come back
    as metaphor: my father, as if

    to ease me into sleep, reciting
    the trials of Odysseus. Always

    he begins with the Cyclops,
    light at the cave’s mouth

    bright as knowledge, the pilgrim
    honing a pencil-sharp stake.

    It’s the old place on Jefferson Street
    I’ve entered, a girl again, the house dark
    and everyone sleeping—so quiet it seems

    I’m alone. What can this mean now, more
    than thirty years gone, to find myself
    at the beginning of that long hallway

    knowing, as I did then, what stands
    at the other end? And why does the past
    come back like this: looming, a human figure

    formed—as if it had risen from the Gulf
    —of the crushed shells that paved
    our driveway, a sharp-edged creature

    that could be conjured only by longing?
    Why is it here blocking the dark passage
    to my father’s bookshelves, his many books?

    3. SIREN
    In this dream I am driving
    a car, strapped to my seat

    like Odysseus to the mast,
    my father calling to me

    from the back—luring me
    to a past that never was. This

    is the treachery of nostalgia.
    This is the moment before

    a ship could crash onto the rocks,
    the car’s back wheels tip over

    a cliff. Steering, I must be
    the crew, my ears deaf

    to the sound of my father’s voice;
    I must be the captive listener

    cleaving to his words. I must be
    singing this song to myself.

  • Reviews
    Nominated for NAACP Image Award 

    Los Angeles Time Holiday Books Guide, Poetry 

    Goodreads Choice Awards 2012 Finalist, Best Poetry 

    Finalist, 2013 Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Book Award 

    Finalist, 2013 Paterson Poetry Prize 

    Finalist, 2013 Phillis Wheatley Book Award, Poetry  


    "In poems that again exhibit her gift for finding in microcosmic form the specter of societal relations, Trethewey makes explicit historically ignored ideas that underlie (a very literal) enlightenment."—Booklist 


    "Thrall's poems draw on Mexico's casta aintings, which were created to catalog the mixed-blood peoples living there under colonial Spanice rule...on a subject ripe with the perfidies and paradoxes of thralldom both personal and public, it is utterly elegant." —Elle Magazine 


    “[Trethewey’s poems] dig beneath the surface of history—personal or communal, from childhood or from a century ago—to explore the human struggles that we all face.” —James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress 


    “Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall is simply the finest work of her already distinguished career. This remarkable collection carries the reader from troubling ekphrastic reflections upon colonial depictions of mixed race—meditations of superbly nuanced cultural and historical resonance—to a stunningly personal album of self-portraits of the poet with her father. Rarely has any poetic intersection of cultural and personal histories felt more inevitable, more painful, or profound.” —David St. John 


    “In poems of exquisite tact and clarity, Natasha Trethewey confronts the excruciating differentials of racial mapping and the will-to-knowledge such mapping represents. Through the serial shocks of historical and personal discovery, through meticulous inventories of human division and turnings-aside, above all through “the dark amendment” of acknowledged bonds—the “Thrall” of her title—these poems probe the very foundations of reciprocal understanding.” —Linda Gregerson