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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 8/28/2012
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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By unflinchingly charting the intersections of public and personal history, Thrallexplores the historical, cultural, and social forces--across time and space--that determine the roles consigned to a mixed-race daughter and her white father. In a vivid series of poems about interracial marriage depicted in the Casta Paintings of Colonial Mexico, Trethewey investigates the philosophical assumptions that underpin Enlightenment notions of taxonomy and classification, exposing the way they encode ideas of race within our collective imagination. While tropes about captivity, bondage, inheritance, and enthrallment permeate the collection, Trethewey, by reflecting on a series of small estrangements from her poet father, comes to an understanding of how, as father and daughter, they are part of the ongoing history of race in America. Thrallnot only confirms that Natasha Trethewey is one of our most gifted and necessary poets but that she is also one of our most brilliant and fearless.

Table of Contents

Elegyp. 3
Miracle of the Black Legp. 9
On Captivityp. 13
Taxonomyp. 16
De Español y de India Produce Mestisop. 16
De Español y Negra Produce Mulatop. 19
De Español yMestiza Produce Castizap. 22
The Book of Castasp. 24
Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus; or, The Mulatap. 27
Knowledgep. 28
The Americansp. 33
Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright on Dissecting the White Negro, 1851p. 33
Bloodp. 34
Help, 1968p. 35
Mono Prietap. 37
De Español y Negra; Mulatap. 39
Mythologyp. 41
Nostosp. 41
Questions Posed by the Dreamp. 42
Sirenp. 43
Geographyp. 45
Torna Atrásp. 48
Bird in the Housep. 50
Artifactp. 52
Fouledp. 54
Rotationp. 55
Thrallp. 59
Callingp. 66
Enlightenmentp. 68
How the Past Comes Backp. 72
On Happinessp. 74
Vespertina Cognitiop. 75
Illuminationp. 76
Notesp. 81
Acknowledgmentsp. 83
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


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.

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