Thrall

Overview

The stunning follow-up volume to her 2007 Pulitzer Prize–winning Native Guard, by America’s new Poet Laureate

Natasha Trethewey’s poems are at once deeply personal and historical—exploring her own interracial and complicated roots—and utterly American, connecting them to ours. The daughter of a black mother and white father, a student of history and of the Deep South, she is inspired by everything from colonial paintings of mulattos and mestizos to the stories of people ...

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Thrall

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Overview

The stunning follow-up volume to her 2007 Pulitzer Prize–winning Native Guard, by America’s new Poet Laureate

Natasha Trethewey’s poems are at once deeply personal and historical—exploring her own interracial and complicated roots—and utterly American, connecting them to ours. The daughter of a black mother and white father, a student of history and of the Deep South, she is inspired by everything from colonial paintings of mulattos and mestizos to the stories of people forgotten by history. Meditations on captivity, knowledge, and inheritance permeate Thrall, as she reflects on a series of small estrangements from her poet father and comes to an understanding of how, as father and daughter, they are part of the ongoing history of race in America.

Thrall confirms not only that Natasha Trethewey is one of our most gifted and necessary poets but that she is also one of our most brilliant and fearless.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
…a must-read collection that equals the power and quality of her third book, Native Guard, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize…Thrall is a powerful, beautifully crafted book, and Trethewey does a wonderful job of shifting from a personal perspective to a global view and back. She subtly challenges readers to confront their own attitudes about race, which so often go unexpressed and unexamined.
—Elizabeth Lund
Publishers Weekly
Trethewey made headlines and signaled a generational shift with her appointment this year as U.S. poet laureate. Already known for her 2007 Pulitzer Prize–winning Native Guard and for her articulate, deftly shaped, and sometimes research-driven poems about history and race, Trethewey in this fourth collection takes her familiar powers to non–U.S. turf, considering race, embodiment, guilt and liberation in paintings from Spain and Mexico. In one of the famous casta paintings illustrating Spanish colonial notions of race, a mulatto boy "is a palimpsest of paint—/ layers of color, history rendering him// that precise shade of in-between." Lightly rhymed pentameters about Diego Velázquez's painting "Kitchen Maid" pay homage to the scrutinized character: "she is the mortar/ and the pestle and rest in the mortar—still angled/ in its posture of use"; the patient title poem considers Juan de Pareja, a painter who started life as Velázquez's slave. When Trethewey turns her attention back to contemporary America, she looks at her own family: her late African-American mother and her white father, his life "showing me// how one life is bound to another, that hardship/ endures." Trethewey's ideas are not always original, but her searching treatments of her own family, and of people in paintings, show strength and care, and a sharp sense of line. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"Utterly elegant." —Elle Magazine
Library Journal
Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize (for Native Ground) and current U.S. poet laureate, Trethewey again places racial identity at the conceptual center of her finely crafted verse, in particular the depiction of mixed-race peoples as filtered through the lens of her own biracial heritage and the passing of her father, from whom she had long been estranged ("a history that links us—white, father, black daughter/—even as it renders us other to each other"). A number of ekphrastic poems deconstruct centuries-old artworks—"miracle transplant" paintings in which black donors sacrifice limbs for white recipients ("a body in service, plundered"), the Casta paintings of colonial Mexico, even a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, "rendered two-toned…as if the artist meant to contrast/his bright knowledge, its dark subtext"—as Trethewey's acute understanding of how "the past holds us captive" leads to insightful and often moving interactions between public and private histories. VERDICT Though several elegies for her father are unremarkable, the lion's share of Thrall conveys a wise and revelatory urgency appropriate to one of the vital social concerns of our time. Recommended for most collections.—Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547571607
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 8/28/2012
  • Pages: 84
  • Sales rank: 490,328
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

NATASHA TRETHEWEY is the current U.S.

Poet Laureate and is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University. Native Guard, her third collection of poetry, received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was published in 2010.

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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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Table of Contents

Elegy 3

Miracle of the Black Leg 9
On Captivity 13
Taxonomy 16
 1. DE ESPAÑOL Y DE INDIA PRODUCE MESTIZO 16
 2. DE ESPAÑOL Y NEGRA PRODUCE MULATO 19
 3. DE ESPAÑOL Y MESTIZA PRODUCE CASTIZA 22
 4. THE BOOK OF CASTAS 24
Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus; or, The Mulata 27
Knowledge 28

The Americans 33
 1. DR. SAMUEL ADOLPHUS CARTWRIGHT ON
DISSECTING THE WHITE NEGRO, 1851 33
 2. BLOOD 34
 3. HELP, 1968 35
Mano Prieta 37
De Español y Negra; Mulata 39
Mythology 41
 1. NOSTOS 41
 2. QUESTIONS POSED BY THE DREAM 42
 3. SIREN 43
Geography 45
Torna Atrás 48
Bird in the House 50
Artifact 52
Fouled 54
Rotation 55

Thrall 59
Calling 66
Enlightenment 68
How the Past Comes Back 72
On Happiness 74
Vespertina Cognitio 75
Illumination 76

Notes 81
Acknowledgments 83

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