In 2010’s Thrall, the follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey interweaves family and history in a stunning and moving way. The former US Poet Laureate, who was born to a white father and a black mother, takes on the racism that is inextricable from art and history, and explores the complicated relationship between herself and her late father.
Many of these poems are about colonialist Spanish art, addressing the pain that is rendered by a tradition meant to be aesthetically affecting. This is one of the hardest things for many a contemporary artist to get over: the pain that comes from art of the past, so often made to express hatred and intolerance. In the series “Taxonomy,” Trethewey writes ekphrastic poems based on a series of paintings by Juan Rodriguez Juarez, an 18th century Spanish painter. In these paintings, known as casta paintings, Juarez depicts children born to “the various mixed unions of colonial Mexico.” The title of the poem series is telling: these paintings depict real children as no more than objects of taxonomical study, their humanity erased. In poem 2 of the series, “De Espanol y Negra Produce Mulato,” Trethewey describes the child depicted:
If there is light inside him, it does not shine
through the paint that holds his face
in profile–his domed forehead, eyes
nearly closed beneath a heavy brow.
The poet here attempts to restore the humanity that the child has been robbed of by the painter, who has depicted him as no more than an object of aesthetic study, quelling the “light inside him.” In her notes, Trethewey also tells us that these paintings were meant to depict the so-called “‘taint’ of black blood,” the colonial belief, which was often written into law, that a person’s status decreased the more non-white blood they possessed. The poem ends with the line, “a last brush stroke fixed him in place,” lamenting the child’s static immortality in the painting, where he is unable to break out of his own taxonomic labeling.
In the title poem, “Thrall,” Trethewey writes in the voice of Juan de Pareja, who was the slave of the painter Diego Velazquez. Pareja himself was also a painter, known especially for his painting The Calling of St. Matthew. An excerpt reads,
Because he said
painting was not
the province of free men
I could only
watch such beauty
in the work of his hands
a divine language I learned
over his shoulder…
This poem crystallizes one of the most salient questions asked by Trethewey: how do we reconcile our cultural heroes with their virulent racism? Can we? How can such people be responsible for “such beauty?” Pareja admires his master’s work, and ultimately learns his craft from Velazquez, but nothing can erase the horror of his own slavery. At the end of the day, sometimes, the human cost of art is too great. Trethewey works to redeem the memories of those who were the victims and voiceless subjects of colonialist art.
This is also a deeply personal book, about the relationship between a white father and his biracial daughter. In “Enlightenment,” about the painting of Jefferson at Monticello, Trethewey captures precisely the place where the political seeps into the personal:
The first time I saw the painting, I listened
as my father explained the contradictions:
how Jefferson hated slavery, though–out
of necessity, my father said–had to own
slaves; that his moral philosophy meant
he could not have fathered those children:
would have been impossible, my father said.
For years we debated the distance between
word and deed.
The tragedy of America is that even the bonds of family can be interrupted by the country’s racial history, that a white father can justify a cultural hero’s ownership of slaves to his nonwhite daughter. Much of this book is an exploration of Trethewey’s relationship with her father, her attempt to reconcile his memory with the complexities of their relationship. In the poem “Elegy,” Trethewey recalls fishing with her father, who was also a poet:
…I can tell you now
that I tried to take it all in
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?
In Thrall, Natasha Trethewey is ruthless, but her intensity is understated. In clear, flowing verse, she takes on colonialism, American racism, and the complexities of her relationship with her father. This is a book about America, about a world in which no relationship is safe from the terrible weight of history.