27 September 2012

a review of natasha trethewey’s thrall

Thrall, poems by Natasha Trethewey
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)
Poetry by Natasha Trethewey
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
, August/September 2012
ISBN: 978-0-547-57160-7
Hardcover: 96 pages; $23.00

It seems like it would be pretty hard to accomplish more by age 46 than Natasha Trethewey. With a Pulitzer Prize already to her name, for her third book, Native Guard, and her recent appointment as the United States Poet Laureate, Trethewey doesn’t have to do much to impress both the poetic world and … well … anybody else.

Yet with her fourth and most recent collection, Thrall, Trethewey manages to do just that.

In this slender collection of poems, Trethewey takes us backward and forward in time, establishing Thrall as a collection as much about past as it is about present---or rather, how the two are inextricably linked through history, through identity, and in discovering truth and self and meaning. The collection’s first poem, “Elegy,” reflects the poet’s longing---a sometimes ruthless longing---to make sense of and (re)discover the world.

As the child of a black woman and white man, Trethewey boldly confronts issues of racial identity, cultural and racial attitudes, stereotypes, and the shifts in the landscape of racial understanding through history. Trethewey wrote in a previous poem that history, or the ghost of history, “lies down beside me, rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm”; in Thrall, she seems to give in to that embrace, take on that ghost, and give it a new face. In “Taxonomy,” a series of poems based on 18th-century casta paintings by Juan Rodriguez Juarez, Trethewey pairs an examination of mixed race---which Trethewey terms in one instance “an equation of blood”---with mixed tongues, pairing English and Spanish to blend her form to content. Through a written representation of the Enlightenment era’s fascination with taxonomy---which included racial and ethnographic categorizations and distinctions, and the perceived exotica of mixed-blood couplings---Trethewey allows us to witness an historical fascination with what were perceived as at once exotic and colonized blacks. Trethewey captures both this fascination and the somewhat hostile undertones---the heavy “weight of blood,” a mother contorting in paired watchfulness of her mixed-race child and perhaps wariness of the “transient” and “myopic” father—in a “catalog / of mixed blood.” Through a careful and raw examination of both a cultural and deeply personal history, she shows both the beauty and horrors of race, classifications, and (particularly mixed) heritage.

History haunts in this collection, as mixed blood becomes a “phantom ache” in poems like “Miracle of the Black Leg.” In this poem, mixed blood takes on a multitude of meanings. It is at once lineage, heritage, races mixing in society, and more. What becomes apparent, both in this poem and throughout the collection, is that Trethewey is creating a dazzling array of gazes, all honing in on the complicated subject of identity. The work she does to rewrite history---slaves become “Adam and Eve / in the New World” in the poem “On Captivity,” just as the mixing of black and white blood becomes a “miracle transplant” in the “Miracle” poem---shows us that all history, and all attempts at defining identity, is in the eye of the beholder. History, legacy, race, and identity become a series of lines cast into a void, impossible to distinguish, and always reeling back something new, so that, as Trethewey notes in one of the collection’s poems:

You kept casting
your line, and when it did not come back

empty, it was tangled with mine …

Thrall is a beautiful collection that captures both a personal narrative and a unique look at the connections between personal identity, history, heritage, and race. In it, Trethewey deftly issues a challenge to her readers to both reexamine and encourage the discourse regarding race and its historical legacy, one that is at one profoundly painful and intensely beautiful. 


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  1. Such an interesting presentation on complex issues-its on my list now. Recent books I've read also do a superlative study on identity: Danzy Senna's "Where did you Sleep Last Night" and Heidi Durrow's "The Girl who Fell from the Sky."

    1. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on "The Girl who Fell from the Sky"; I read that one recently as well and had some mixed feelings on it, particularly in regards to the ending.


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