Aspen Times Weekly book review: “Thrall,” by Natasha Trethewey


“Thrall: Poems”

Natasha Trethewey

96 pages, $23

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

As the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014, Natasha Trethewey had the widest audience a poet will find in America. She used the platform, in the collection “Thrall,” to explore representations of race in our history.

The poems in “Thrall” are largely meditations on paintings, parsing the meanings and double meanings of colors and imagery through the perspectives of history and historical paintings.

This 2012 collection followed Trethewey’s acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 book, “Native Guard,” and continues her career of bold, beautifully crafted poetry. The daughter of an African-American woman and a white man raised in Mississippi, Trethewey’s poems are inextricably linked with her personal history. They explore attitudes toward race by looking at artistic works from the U.S. and Europe, some dating back to the 1400s. But in Trethewey’s vision, they are made strikingly contemporary.

In “The Americans,” for instance, she writes about an 1851 painting of a doctor “dissecting the white Negro,” then jumps to a photograph of a black woman holding a white baby in Robert Frank’s 1958 book of portraits “The Americans.” It reminds her of “when my mother took me for walks, / she was mistaken again and again /for my maid.”

This slim volume is filled with such vivid, gorgeously crafted imagery. Along with ruminations on actual portraits on canvas, Trethewey offers a vivid portrait of bits of her life. “Geography,” for instance, is a poetic triptych of her father. Sometimes, these poems do both things simultaneously, as in “Torna Atras,” about an anonymous work from the 1790s of an artist painting a portrait of a beautiful woman, who is inexplicably rendered homely on his canvas. In Trethewey’s vision, the painting echoes her father’s tumultuous relationship with her mother:

“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.”

Trethewey will give a reading on Tuesday, Jan. 6, at Paepcke Auditorium, as part of the Winter Words series.