Thrall

Poems

by Natasha Trethewey

Thrall

Hardcover, 84 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $23 | purchase

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Book Summary

Collects the author's poems as she reflects on her own interracial ancestry, her estrangement from her father, and their place in the history of race in America.

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NPR stories about Thrall

Best Books Of 2012

Well-Versed: Five Poets With Punch

Even if Natasha Trethewey weren't our current United States poet laureate (as well as my colleague and, it should be said, friend), I would have to name her latest book, Thrall, as one of this year's highlights. Thrall starts with the tremendous poem, "Elegy," mourning not a life but a more unspecified loss: It recognizes the tangled, often "invisible line[s]" that connect a poet and her father, a fatherland and the not so far away past. Trethewey's is a book of history,

Kevin Young

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Thrall

Thrall

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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