The theme of racial mixing throughout this collection of poems works when the poet describes her own personal, intimate contact with this defining characteristic of her identity. When I think it comes across as a bit heavy-handed is when she describes the bigger historical picture. I much prefer her personal poems here than her historical ones. For example, I love the poem "Mano Prieta" when she describes a random encounter of her parents (one white, one "colored") captured in a photograph. This is her personal history and she expresses it in a lovely way. While the historical and cultural themes are interesting throughout the book, they ocassionally become a bit obvious and one has to ask, Why is this poetry special? Why isn't this simply a cultural essay? I'm on the fence about whether or not to explore this poet's works in more detail, but given the powerful personal poetry, I just may.
on September 2, 2012
Natasha Tretheway is a poet with a gift for language and form and image, and a set of built-in subject matter. Here, as previously, she explores how history affects her biracial self and her white father (also a poet). The volume starts out with a lovely elegy to the father, who is not yet dead. Tretheway is a better fisher than her father - which may be her way of letting him know she is a better poet too.
These are not conventional lyrical or meditative poems. Tretheway is definitely not of the "I stand here ironing and think of my mother" school of conventional prose stuff that is so popular now. Neither is she merely up to linguistic tricks. She mostly uses long-phrased stanzas, broken up into sets of short lines (though a few of the poems are set in conventional even-length lines).
If you are expecting the usual set of poetic concerns, look elsewhere. These poems all explore concerns related to biraciality, thrall (in its widest sense as involuntary condition). What is Tretheway thrall to? What is her father thrall to? How do they both view Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemmings?
There are also some ekphrastic poems, related to paintings of black artists or other racially-related mythologies. You might think that ekphrastic poems can't be effective unless you know or can look at the related picture. Tretheway shows this isn't always true; her descriptions and meditations bring the pictures adequately to mind. Besides, the issue isn't what the picture looks like, but what it inspires in the poet.
Warning: if you prefer conventional poems whose meaning is apparent on a single reading, look elsewhere. These poems explode in your mind, but slowly.
Would I rather spend my reading time on someone like Jane Kenyon, whose poems are accessible and beautiful on the surface and convey at least one meaning immediately? Or Lucille Clifton to whom the same descriptions applies despite how different Kenyon's and Clifton's work is? Perhaps. But there's a place for the work Trethewey is undertaking too.
Check out a few of the poems as they are set in the book, and you'll know whether you're willing to do the work it takes to undertand and appreciate this book. Your choice.
2007 Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey gifts us with this rather extraordinary collection of poems that explore relationships between parent and child in a marriage of two people from different cultures: Trethewey is the mixed race progeny of a white father (a poet) and a darker skinned Mexican mother. This platform provides a complex stage setting for discussions of heritage, depth of cultural bonds and influences, and a particularly fine examination of differences between peoples from different vantages. And she manages to do all of this with elegant writings about art - especially colonial Mexican art - and other aspects that bring us to a closer understanding of others.
Though her poems benefit from the gentle manner in which she places her words on a page, such placement is restricted by the format of a reviewer's note. But the only way to truly appreciate just how wondrous is the poetry of Natasha Trethewey is to quote some of her work:
The unknown artist has rendered the father a painter and so
we see him at this work: painting a portrait of his wife -
their dark child watching nearby, a servant grinding colors
in the corner. The woman poses just beyond his canvas
and cannot see her likeness, her less than mirror image
coming to life beneath his hand. He has rendered her
homely, so unlike the woman we see in this scene, dressed
in late-century fashion, a `chicqueador' - mark of beauty
in the shape of a crescent moon - affixed to her temple.
If I say his painting is unfinished, that he has yet to make her
beautiful, to match the elegant sweep of her hair,
the graceful tilt of her head, has yet to adorn her dress
with lace and trim, it is only one way to see it. You might see,
instead, that the artist - perhaps to show his own skill -
has made the father a dilettante, incapable of capturing
his wife's beauty. Or, that he cannot see it: his mind's eye
reducing her to what he's made as if to reveal the illusion
immanent in her flesh. If you consider the century's mythology
of the body - that a dark spot marked the genitals of anyone
with African blood - you might see how the black moon
on her white face recalls it: the `roseta' she passes to her child
marking him `torna atrás'. If I tell you such terms were born
in the Enlightenment's hallowed rooms, that the wages of empire
is myopia, you might see the father's vision as desire embodied
in paint, this rendering of his wife born of need to see himself
as architect of Truth, benevolent patriarch, father of uplift
ordering his domain. And you might see why, to understand
my father, I look again and again at this painting: how it is
that a man could love - and so diminish what he loves.
And as operatically magnificent is her writing that we forget she can be brief and in the moment as in the following poem:
From the next room I hear my father's voice,
a groan at first, a sound so sad I think he must be
reliving a catalog of things lost: all the dead
come back to stand ringside, the glorious body
of his youth - a light heavyweight, fight ready
and glistening - that beauty I see now in pictures.
Looking into the room, I half imagine I'll find him
shadowboxing the dark, arms and legs twitching
as a dog runs in sleep. Tonight, I've had to help him
into bed - stumbling up the stairs, his arm a weight
on my shoulders so heavy it nearly brought us down.
now his distress cracks open the night; he is calling
my name. I could wake him, tell him it's only a dream,
that I am here. Here is the threshold I do not cross:
a sliver of light through the doorway finds his tattoo,
the anchor on his forearm, tangled in its chain.
Natasha Trethewey is wise, talented and sensitive and is capable of producing massive room filling paintings of poems as easily and with as much facility as she is with brief thoughts such as this last poem. She is probably one of today's most important poets. Grady Harp, July 12
on June 13, 2013
This book did not amaze me. Loved the concept. Loved the more personal poems. The ekphrasis-type poems I felt were too distant from the original works, and also too descriptive since the artworks themselves were not included. I could see but not feel what she was trying to accomplish there. Seemed like too much poetry, not enough poems.
This was my first book by Ms. Trethewey. I almost got "Native Guard" instead, as it's the Pulitzer winner and "Thrall" is post-laureate. I have read very few books by laureates that are as good as the work that got them the job. Here is another example.
Still, her power and mastery of language blah blah blah are clear. I intend to pick up "Native" soon and give her another shot. She reminds me of a more formal, less fun Kommunyakaa, whose work I also think has diminished lately.
on January 11, 2013
I found these poems to be intriguing and the book seems to fit the current editor preferences for a "theme" in a collection. It speaks well to the experiences of biracial people, and I know Trethaway is the new poet laureate with many accolades to her name. This is the first of her work I've read, so to be fair, I need to read more of her work including that which won the Pulitzer. Somehow I find I need more from poetry than this. It may be my age, I'm a retired senior pushing 80, and it may be my interest wanders to other themes at this time. I'm more concerned with the decline of the world as we know it, or at least, as I have known it.
on December 14, 2012
What can one say about Thrall besides brilliant?
Somehow, Trethewey has managed to spill America's blood all over the page and for once it is tied in history told in poetics from someone with multicultural roots.
Although thrall is a collection of poetry seemingly based on Trethewey's own life, there are distinct moments where you feel as if you are looking back on your own memories with your parents and siblings. You see how different you are from them but you relish the memories because you are joined by household and blood.
For instance, in Mano Prieta or "dark hand", Trethewey seems to be taking a snapshot of her family with words- her childhood photograph or perhaps the Speaker's childhood photo of the contrasts between black mother and white father, but it is her mother's "lovely, dark hand" that makes an imprint on her.
Other poems that follow are just as deep, just as obtuse, and equally enthralling.
Highly recommended- 5 stars!