...actually, 20 years after it was first made. A standard aphorism in the publishing industry is that more people write poetry than read it. Poetry is a hard sell. And I must admit, I've read very little, since those obligatory college courses where I was busy sorting out "iambic pentameter," and such. I knew what it meant for the test, but it has been `Greek' to me ever since. So, when this selection appeared on my Vine offerings, I saw a chance to partially remediate one more character flaw.
Natasha Trethewey was appointed to the position of US Poet Laureate in June, 2012, and will soon take up residency in Washington, DC. The position has been previously held by such poets as Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Frost, and James Dickey (to prove you don't have to be a "Bob."). The selection of Trethewey's work contained in this volume in quite short, but it is richer than a chocolate (as it were) soufflé in terms of the density of thought, and feeling, expressed uniquely and succinctly. And the subject matter is topical: a historical look at the relationship between the races, often on the most intimate basis. Certain of her poems carefully examine the depiction of race by certain artists, particularly Spanish ones. The cover has been aptly chosen to convey this: it is Juan Rodriguez Juarez's "Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo." Tretheway says that the look in the woman's eye is conveying: "see what we have created." Trethewey is currently a professor at Emory, in Atlanta, but her interest in this subject is not exclusively academic. Her father is white, her mother was black (she was killed by her second husband). Her parents were married in Mississippi, when "miscegenation" was still illegal, and therefore her mother's race on the marriage certificate is "colored," her father's, "Canadian"! Several of her poems relate to her relationship with her parents, and what it personally has meant to be a "mélange."
"Thrall" is the poem that lends its name to the collection. It concerns Juan de Pareja, a Spanish painter who spent much of his life as a slave of perhaps the most famous Spanish painter, Diego Velazquez. The title is appropriate: "thrall" is an old Norse word for an "unfree servant." It would be useful to refer to a collection of Velazquez's paintings, such as Velazquez: Museo del Prado 23 enero/31 marzo 1990 (Spanish Edition) as one reads some of the poems, for example "The Mulata" on page 27, which describes the painting of the same name, on page 59 of the cited work on his paintings. "The Enlightenment" is also a great poem which, all too appropriately for the subject theme, looks at Thomas Jefferson, and his relationship (non-relationship?) with Sally Hemings, who, as the author points out, is a "quadroon," a word we don't hear much about anymore. The poem concludes with Trethewey's acerbic and playful wit: she is visiting Monticello with her father, and at one point whispers to him, "This is where we split up. I'll head around to the back."
There are other formulations that I'll remember, such as "the syntax of sloughing... a snake's curved form," and "If I tell you such terms were born in the Enlightenment's hallowed rooms, that the wages of empire is myopia..."
And even a line aimed at the heart of one who picked up a poetry book after a 40 plus year hiatus, a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Vespertina Cognitio": "...the knowledge of man is an evening knowledge..." Better late than never. 5-stars.
[ Note: I received an email from a far-more-knowledgeable-than-I English teacher who knew that Natasha Trethewey's parents were married in Ohio, where it was legal, but that the marriage was still considered illegal in Mississippi... although the "problem" of state lines, and "miscegenation" has now been laid to rest, it lives on with gay marriages. Will any of those be resolved with the "Canadian" race?]