Thrallby Natasha Trethewey
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard explored Natasha Trethewey’s relationship with her black mother. Now, her new collection, Thrall, takes on the uneasy relationship between her and her white father. It charts the intersections of public and personal history that determine the roles to which a mixed-race daughter and her white father/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
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The Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard explored Natasha Trethewey’s relationship with her black mother. Now, her new collection, Thrall, takes on the uneasy relationship between her and her white father. It charts the intersections of public and personal history that determine the roles to which a mixed-race daughter and her white father are consigned.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
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.
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.
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?
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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