Thrall: Poems

Thrall: Poems

by Natasha Trethewey
     
 

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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

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Utterly elegant." —Elle Magazine

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780544586208
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
09/22/2015
Edition description:
Reissue
Pages:
96
Sales rank:
651,741
Product dimensions:
7.80(w) x 5.30(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Elegy
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.

Mythology

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.

2. QUESTIONS POSED BY THE DREAM
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.

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Meet the Author

NATASHA TRETHEWEY was the 2012 poet laureate of the United States, and Native Guard , her third collection of poetry, received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. She is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.

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