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 Through a consideration of historical documents and paintings, Natasha Trethewey—Pulitzer-prize winning author of Native Guard—highlight the contours and complexities of her relationship with her white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.
The stunning follow-up volume to her 2007 Pulitzer Prize–winning Native Guard, by America’s new Poet Laureate
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.
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.
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
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?
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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