"Thrall: Poems" by Natasha Trethewey (HMH/HMH )
Natasha Trethewey’s “Thrall” is a must-read collection that equals the power and quality of her third book, “Native Guard,” which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. “Thrall” also demonstrates why this 46-year-old writer is worthy of her recent appointment as poet laureate of the United States.
Trethewey, the daughter of an African American woman and a white man, explores racial attitudes and stereotypes throughout this slim volume, using both personal and historical lenses. The book opens with a gorgeous, understated poem about a fishing trip she and her father took years ago. That experience and their difficult relationship create an underlying tension that shapes the entire book. What readers notice first, though, is the poem’s engrossing imagery:
the surface, mist at the banks like a net
settling around us —
One can almost feel the river water flowing into her father’s boots as he tries to master “that perfect arc” and she catches and releases two small fish. The writing moves masterfully as he continues to cast fruitlessly until his line tangles with hers. Trethewey ends the poem with this discerning statement:
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.
From there, the collection shifts, and the reader eagerly follows as the muted colors along the river are replaced by stark questions about race and identity. Trethewey knows the journey will not be easy because where “we are headed” is inextricably tied to history and her own experience as the product of a mixed marriage that was illegal in Mississippi in the 1960s.
Trethewey begins her exploration with “Miracle of the Black Leg,” a poem about a mythical transplant procedure in which a black man’s leg was removed to save a white patient. As she notes in a brief introduction, “pictorial representations” of this event date to the 14th century. The details change in each version, but the white man is always depicted as superior:
this is how the myth repeats: the miracle — in words
or wood or paint — is a record of thought.
Trethewey looks to several other paintings, locales and periods as a way to unearth deeply rooted ideas about what it means to be of mixed race, to be so defined by “black blood — that she cannot transcend it.”
As the book progresses, she glimpses her parents in other scenes. In “The Americans,” she looks at a photograph of a black woman holding a white baby; it reminds her of the year her father was at sea and her mother “was mistaken again and again / for my maid.” In “Knowledge,” she describes an autopsy where several white men stare at a beautiful corpse:
each learned man is my father
and I hear, again, his words — I study
my crossbreed child.
Her parents’ divorce and insensitive comments by Trethewey’s father, a published poet in his own right, lead to a series of estrangements, but eventually she reaches “Enlightenment,” a turning point in the collection. Here, she recounts his efforts, as a young man, to explain the incongruity between Thomas Jefferson’s beliefs about liberty and his relationship with Sally Hemings, a light-skinned slave. Over time, her father’s stance softens, and by the end of the poem, as they walk the grounds of Monticello, Trethewey writes,
When he laughs, I know he’s grateful
I’ve made a joke of it, this
that links us — white
father, black daughter —
even as it renders us
other to each other.
“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.
As poet laureate, Trethewey will reach a wide new audience, and her experience and formidable talent will likely inspire many. She also has the opportunity, as “Thrall” illustrates, to advance, in some measure, the national dialogue about race as she promotes the art of poetry.
Lund regularly reviews poetry for The Washington Post.