Thrall: Poems

by Natasha Trethewey

The stunning follow-up volume to Natasha Trethewey's Pulitzer Prize–winning Native Guard, by the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780544586208
  • ISBN-10: 0544586204
  • Pages: 96
  • Publication Date: 09/22/2015
  • Carton Quantity: 48

About the book

The stunning follow-up volume to Natasha Trethewey's Pulitzer Prize–winning Native Guard, by the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States.

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.

About the author
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.



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.



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?


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.


Nominated for NAACP Image Award 

Los Angeles Time Holiday Books Guide, Poetry 

Goodreads Choice Awards 2012 Finalist, Best Poetry 

Finalist, 2013 Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Book Award 

Finalist, 2013 Paterson Poetry Prize 

Finalist, 2013 Phillis Wheatley Book Award, Poetry  


"In poems that again exhibit her gift for finding in microcosmic form the specter of societal relations, Trethewey makes explicit historically ignored ideas that underlie (a very literal) enlightenment."—Booklist 


"Thrall's poems draw on Mexico's casta aintings, which were created to catalog the mixed-blood peoples living there under colonial Spanice rule...on a subject ripe with the perfidies and paradoxes of thralldom both personal and public, it is utterly elegant." —Elle Magazine 


“[Trethewey’s poems] dig beneath the surface of history—personal or communal, from childhood or from a century ago—to explore the human struggles that we all face.” —James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress 


“Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall is simply the finest work of her already distinguished career. This remarkable collection carries the reader from troubling ekphrastic reflections upon colonial depictions of mixed race—meditations of superbly nuanced cultural and historical resonance—to a stunningly personal album of self-portraits of the poet with her father. Rarely has any poetic intersection of cultural and personal histories felt more inevitable, more painful, or profound.” —David St. John 


“In poems of exquisite tact and clarity, Natasha Trethewey confronts the excruciating differentials of racial mapping and the will-to-knowledge such mapping represents. Through the serial shocks of historical and personal discovery, through meticulous inventories of human division and turnings-aside, above all through “the dark amendment” of acknowledged bonds—the “Thrall” of her title—these poems probe the very foundations of reciprocal understanding.” —Linda Gregerson