Thrall by Natasha Trethewey examines the lines between father and daughter and the African-American experience through a set of personal and analytical poems focused on race and culture. In “Miracle of the Black Leg,” Trethewey examines the juxtaposition of white and black men in paintings and other artwork in which the leg of one man is taken and attached to the thigh of another man. There are similarities in pain stricken faces in some images, paralleling their similar situations, but there are also clear disparities in how each man is treated, even if the leg is taken from a newly deceased person. The imagery she chooses in this poem is particularly haunting, especially when taken in the historical context of how the images are presented throughout the years — with the black donor swept to the side and only the black leg as a representation of the whole.
"See how the story changes: in one painting the Ethiop is merely a body, featureless in a coffin, so black he has no face. In another, the patient -- at the top of the frame -- seems to writhe in pain, the black leg grafted to his thigh. Below him a mirror of suffering: the blackamoor --" (page 11)
". . . The black man, on the floor, holds his stump. Above him, the doctor restrains the patient's arm as if to prevent him touching the dark amendment of flesh. How not to see it -- the men bound one to the other, symbiotic -- one man rendered expendable, the other worthy of this sacrifice? In version after version, even when the Ethiopian isn't there, the leg is a stand-in, a black modifier against the white body," (page 12)
The title of the collection tells readers all they need to know about the topics covered, including the moral, mental, and physical slavery or servitude as well as the complete emotional absorption that can happen in relationships. As Trethewey examines works of art through a lens of racial demarcation, she also looks at daughters’ relationships with their fathers, which can sometimes be congenial and at other times turbulent. In “Knowledge,” she is looking at the dissection of a woman and the men who stand around her as the cut is made into her flesh, and Trethewey’s narrator concludes that her father was not just one type of man, but each of the men in the room — all at once contemplative, scientific, and artistic, even though at times she felt he were just one of those men.
It is easy to see why Thrall by Natasha Trethewey could captivate a packed audience at the Library of Congress when she was inducted as the newest U.S. Poet Laureate, and hearing a poet read their own work can be the best gift. While her reading can enthrall you and bring you near tears, her careful word selection in each poem will ensure that you reflect on the meaning of each line in each verse before you even think about the overarching themes of separation and connection as well as their juxtaposition. A collection that will be on the best of list for sure.
Check out the recap of the U.S. Poet Laureate Event.
This is the 22nd book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.