Thrall: Poems

Thrall: Poems

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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 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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  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547840420

  • ISBN-10: 054784042X

  • Pages: 96

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 08/28/2012

  • Carton Quantity: 1

Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey

NATASHA TRETHEWEY, two-term U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, and 2017 Heinz Award recipient, has written five collections of poetry and one book of nonfiction. An American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow, she is currently Board of Trustees professor of English at Northwestern University. She lives in Evanston, Illinois.
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  • reviews

    "Utterly elegant." —Elle Magazine
  • 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.

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547840420

  • ISBN-10: 054784042X

  • Pages: 96

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 08/28/2012

  • Carton Quantity: 1

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