Thrall: Poems

by Natasha Trethewey

Thrall examines the deeply ingrained and often unexamined notions of racial difference across time and space. Through a consideration of historical documents and paintings, Natasha Trethewey—Pulitzer-prize winning author of Native Guard—highlight the contours and complexities of her relationship with her white father and the ongoing history of race in America.

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

About the book

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


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.


"Utterly elegant." —Elle Magazine