A student of poetry: Thrall, by Natasha Trethewey

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2012 by David St.-Lascaux


threthewey_thrallAS A SOI-DISANT LITERARY CRITIC, I periodically receive new poetry collections to review. Mostly, these range from unreadable to lugubrious, and one can count on first person confessional narcissism in approximately 99.99%, Greek mythology (don’t get me started), and an abysmally, apparently infinitely deep pool of nature similes and metaphors (I have no doubt that when James Cameron airs his deep-sea footage there will be paper-thin poets snorkeling among the lanternfish). Occasionally one shines through. Douglas Adams’s (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) lightweight takedown notwithstanding, this is, as always, because there is very little truly impressive poetry ever written, even by the writers of occasionally truly impressive poetry. Everyone knows this, but, because we all need to earn a living (teaching), we pretend that poetry’s multitudinous hopeful strivers (in an estimated 300 graduate creative writing programs alone) are writing stuff worth writing about (and I have serious reservations about this review). Hope springs eternal among the keystroke simians.

I received Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) and dispassionately read “Elegy,” the first poem, and then another (“Illumination”), and then the title poem (“Thrall”). I usually read the second one, as when I read “Cutting edge,” the closing story in Don’t Call Me By My Right Name And Other Stories, James Purdy’s first book, to give the author a chance at redemption, and to see if the conclusions I drew about the first have any merit. (If you care, Purdy the writer is a misogynistic creep [others better credentialed than I am call this “genius”]; “Don’t call me by my right name,” the collection’s opener, and “Cutting edge” are bookend gutter-gazes, toxic antimatter to Purdy’s contemporary Raymond Carver’s impossibly optimistic, riveting shorts, such as the eye-opening “Cathedral.” Perhaps in life Purdy was a great intellectual and belle-lettrist; what remains is his writing.) In the case of reading a third, it’s usually an act of mercy, in the hopes that I was merely being cynical, or hypercritical in my readings of the first two.

Reading all of Thrall’s poems, one can charitably report that Trethewey is “a student of poetry.”

Reading all of Thrall’s poems, one can charitably report that Trethewey is “a student of poetry.” Taxonomically, her poems are exercises in public autopsychotherapeutic method, airing her relationships with her parents, her mixed race, and yeoman’s academic reflections on race-related paintings and literature. Here, for example, is a sampling of the “father,” “mother” and “mulata” citations permeating the collection’s 31 poems:

If the father,
his hand on her skull, divines—
as the physiognomist does—
the mysteries

– from “Taxonomy”

Why not make a fiction
of the mind’s fictions? I want to say
it begins like this: the trip
a pilgrimage, my mother

– from “Calling”

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.

– from “Kitchen Maid from Supper at Emmaus; or, the Mulata” [Diego Velázquez painting, c. 1620-2]

Don’t get me wrong. If we had enough time, we might learn empathy and humility from the stories of the world’s seven billion present people, its estimated 100 billion-ever inhabitants, and America’s 300 million-plus citizens, of which Natasha Trethewey’s is one. It’s nice that she holds her parents dear and that she needs to be unique, but it’s not publish-me poetry. Other entries speak for themselves:

that thought to pencil in
a jagged arrow    It
is a bolt of lightning

– from “Illumination”


you must remember how

the river seeped over in your boots
and you grew heavier in that defeat.

– from “Elegy”

Poetic criticism can legitimately said to be incomplete if not addressing the poet-in-question’s implementation of the rules of verse and poetic techniques. This is always a daunting task, given Wikipedia’s 850 literary terms, and the extent to which any – even small – body of work might bear intricate exegesis. To this I plead guilty (this review analyzes no scansion, nor whether Trethewey employs enjambment [she does], tranche de vie [ditto], trochee [doesn't], or other devices of interest to specialists), noting that accepting its vers-libre format, Trethewey’s poetry flatly lacks music and magic. Jack Gilbert’s “Icarus” this isn’t. The reader needn’t trouble her- or himself as to whether the above material is even in the same galaxy as laureate material: the answer is self-evident. This matters, because Natasha Trethewey is the incoming United States Poet Laureate.

The laureateship being public and therefore political, Trethewey’s appointment is understandable, if such calculus is the only consideration. Marie Ponsot has disqualified herself by being an Unamerican pacifist (like a certain Martin Luther King, Jr.), and Simon “Sometimes It’s Better To Laugh ‘Honest Injun’” Ortiz apparently resents – in writing – the genocide of his relatives. And I doubt that cargo cultish, voodoo violent Nas will ever be seriously considered for the post. In addition to her mandatory academic credentials, Trethewey’s claims to fame are that she is the daughter of a Caucasian father and African-American mother, and that she is a scholar of the Civil War. Her father is also a poet and professor at Hollins University, where she is an alumna and the Louis D. Rubin Writer-in-Residence for 2012, a remarkable coincidence.

It seems to me that the U.S. Poet Laureate ought to be a distinguished, or at least an outstandingly talented poet. Candidly stated (the previously-published “best of” credentials of some of the included poems and the several mandarins with skin in her game notwithstanding), Trethewey’s poetry doesn’t make either cut. Perhaps this reflects a decline in literacy in America, a country in which the Library of Congress illiterately and illiterarily designates the laureateship as the “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” (we were expecting, maybe, that she would be the “Poet Laureate Consultant in Politically Correct and Uncontroversial Appointments that Won’t Offend the Great White Ghost of William F. Buckley, Jr., Poet Laureate Consultant in Cruciverbalism”?). And what’s with the C word? Oh, I know, it’s lobbyspeak; having met a few (consultant persons, although, so far, no mythic corporate ones), I find the notion of Kay Ryan or Charles Simic as consultants to America, Inc., darkly malhumorous.

That Trethewey will be on-air fodder to promote the tired fairy tale that all one needs is a more positive attitude and a grindstone work ethic to succeed in capitalist America is certain.

I assume that the socialist worker’s union party poet Philip Levine was awarded the Laureateship because the Republicans were pushing cataclysmically destructive legislation or other nefarious time bombs through the system, and were thus not paying attention (or welcomed the distraction of ineffectual intellectual pabulum: “Poet…? What…? Perfect!”). I mention Levine because, in addition to being talented, he stands for something:

The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,

And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.

– from “An Abandoned Factory, Detroit”

as have numerous distinguished poets of color, including Maya Angelou:

Televised news turns
a half-used day into
a waste of desolation.
If nothing wondrous preceded
the catastrophic announcements,
certainly nothing will follow, save
the sad-eyed faces of
bony children,
distended bellies making
mock at their starvation.
Why are they always

­– from “Televised”

and Audre Lorde:

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor

I am
and not white.

– from “A Woman Speaks”

and Langston Hughes:

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

– from “Let America Be America Again”

and Gil Scott-Heron:

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.

– from “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

and Nas:

But yo I swear, it’s a billion dollar business
Courts, lawyers and jails
We all slaves in this business…

– from “My Country”

and Pablo Neruda’s estimada poetisa Julia de Burgos, and Pura Belpré, not to mention activists, authors, playwrights and actors, including Mary Church Terrell, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Sidney Poitier and Malcolm X. Maybe it’s Trethewey’s innocuous pedigree that galls: The namesake whiteface benefactress of her Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University served her European-American masters saccharine bon-bons protesting nothing more than her shackled submission to sublime spiritual authority:

On Being Brought From Africa to America

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.

(Did Rudyard Kipling plagiarize?) Televangelist Pat Robertson would appreciate the poetic sentiment and th’elision; twould short’n his pitch for viewers’ cash. His views on benighted, diabolic negritude, for example in Haiti, are unapologetically on public record.

I’d love to see Trethewey summon the courage to write some laureate-level poetry – poetry that will rock the rotten hulls of America’s exceptional cruelty and indifference.

As Americans, we can be thankful that Trethewey is telegenic. That she will be on-air fodder to promote the tired, formulaic, multibillionaire shill fairy tale for the masses that, in capitalist America, all one needs is a more positive attitude and a grindstone work ethic in order to overcome adversity and materially succeed (material success being the only kind that counts) – is certain. I’d love to be proven wrong, to see Trethewey stop navel gazing,* summon the costly courage to, as she says, “speak the unspeakable,” and write some laureate-level poetry – poetry that will rock the rotten hulls of America’s most exceptional qualities: cruelty, indifference, and the monstrous, redemption-song lie of individual self-reliance. Topical tips: More black men in American prisons today than enslaved in 1850, black American teen unemployment at 36.5 percent, and half of black Americans’ miniscule “wealth” erased since 2005, enthralling data all, for starters. Being realistic, I foresee Trethewey “televised” on Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, best-sellingly exploited, the predators’ duteous, pearly tooth’d Exhibit A du jour.

* * *

* Update: On Monday, 2 July 2012, the HarperCollins imprint Ecco announced that it would publish a Trethewey memoir – not her poetry – in 2014. Apparently laureateship hasn’t provided the impetus for Trethewey to redouble her poetry writing or demonstrate by example her public commitment to poetry.

* * *

Thrall, by Natasha Trethewey, is exclusively available for pre-order at amazon.com. Thrall is scheduled to be released on September 18, 2012.

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Note various misspellings of Ms. Trethewey’s name: Natasha Tretheway, Natasha Trethawey, Natasha Trethaway.

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