In Such Color, her newest collection of poetry, Tracy K. Smith has given her readers a generous selection of poems from her previous four books as well as eighteen new poems. Reading it, I was impressed by how immediately Smith seemed to locate the two modes of writing that would sustain her to this point. The first is a personally elegiac mode, the second a broader-reaching sympathy for marginalized voices that are usually unheard or omitted from the record.
As is the case with most young poets, Smith’s earlier poems are at their best in the more personal mode, as she is here in this moving elegy for her mother found in The Body’s Question, her first book:
Walking up my steps in the dark, digging for the mail and my keys,
I know you are far, infinitely far from us. That you watch
In the way one of us might pause a moment to watch a frenzy of ants,
Wanting to help, to pick up the crumb and put it down
Close to their hill, seeing their purpose that clearly
The language here—both the diction and syntax—is plain, direct, and as a result, powerful. The perspective’s nearly simultaneous expansion (“I know you are far, infinitely far from us”) and magnification (“a frenzy of ants”) is a typical gesture from Smith, though performed so subtly here and so well that one feels, while reading these lines, a smooth acceleration of vision similar to the last few minutes on an airplane as it descends to the runway. Everything seems at first far away, then immediately close by—which is the experience of grief, reified in the poem.
Smith can get herself into trouble, on the other hand, when her attention strays too far from her own experience. This same fault could be attributed to any number of poets, especially at the beginning of their careers, when any life other than one’s own is an occasion for larger questions at best, an abstraction at worst. For Smith, though, the problem isn’t a matter of artistic self-absorption; there’s real compassion and imagination for the people she puts into her poems, whether or not she knows them personally. What plagues her earlier efforts instead is a lack of purpose in the language. Duende, Smith’s second collection, suffers the most overtly from these unfocused sympathies which can never quite coalesce into fully-realized art. A poem like “‘Into the Moonless Night,’” which is staged as a one-act play populated mostly by women kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, contain unquestionably affecting albeit terrible moments like this one:
I beat a ten year-old-boy to death.
Blood came from his ears and nose.
I was ordered to beat him with a big stick.
I liked him. He looked me in the face as he died.
The poem’s notes inform us that some of this dialogue is from a New York Times Magazine article titled “Charlotte, Grace, Janet and Caroline Come Home,” which details the lives of four women kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army. In the lines excerpted above, nearly all the language is taken directly from the article—except that one short, declarative sentence: “I liked him.” How important those three words are, providing a soft pathos, an emotional roundness to Janet, which lifts the rest of the lines from mere prose into poetry. It’s a lovely display of Smith’s skill in portraiture and how even the tiniest touch can transform source material into something new.
And yet. The notes also reveal that another source for the poem comes from “The Tale of Paraa,” the central text of the Holy Spirit Movement in Uganda from which the voices of Joseph Kony and Alice Lakwena emerge into Smith’s short drama. Mysticism saturates the dialogue of both, resulting in a clash between the grounded register of the women and supernatural ones of Kony and Lakwena. Kony proclaims, for instance, that “I am the Chosen Son. / Eight angels abide in me, / Guide me toward peace / For this country. It will / Rain down like blood.” From the voice of Alice Lakwena: “Water I am coming to ask you about the sins / And bloodshed in this world And the water said / Man kills his brethren and deposits the bodies in the water.” That the language itself intensifies to match the strong personalities of these two charismatic figures is perhaps a virtue as far as characterization goes—but it’s hard not to feel as if the poem itself goes cold in the aftermath. Smith’s decision to juxtapose the strongest writing—the austere speech of Charlotte, Grace, Janet, and Caroline—with more found material dilutes the overall impact by cluttering the page. Language enters the poem because of the ideas it provokes, or the history it provides, or the curiosity it invites, but not always because it’s necessary. In “‘Into the Moonless Night,’” and much of Duende as a whole, the poetry is obfuscated by research.
Life on Mars, her third book, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Written largely in response to the death of her father, Smith uses his career as an engineer who contributed to the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope to develop the collection’s central metaphor: outer space as both unknowable infinity and ultimate reality. If here the final frontier sounds a lot like a metonym for God, as I thought it did, Smith is happy to at once facilitate this reading and subvert it. “The Weather in Space,” the book’s opening poem, invokes the deity directly, asking: “Is God being or pure force? The wind / Or what commands it?” But the force which animates Smith’s cosmos eludes easy categorization in either literary, religious, or scientific terms. The old, imagined figure of God becomes something other—something Smith names simply It:
We are a part of It. Not guests.
Is It us, or what contains us?
How can It be anything but an idea,
Something teetering on the spine
Of the number i? It is elegant
But coy. It avoids the blunt ends
Of our fingers as we point. We
Have gone looking for It everywhere:
In Bibles and bandwidth, blooming
Like a wound from the ocean floor.
Still, It resists the matter of false vs. real.
Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-
Appeasable. It is like some novels:
Vast and unreadable.
What, the reader may ask, is It? Elusive but also inviting, like the internal rhyme which ramifies throughout the poem almost invisibly until the cluster of L-sounds in the final four lines. Thus the final effect feels less conclusive than anticipatory, like the silence that follows a long echo. This is some of Smith’s most self-assured writing, where the reader can hear the poet orchestrating, rather than thinking out, the answers to her questions.
Music, indeed, is a consistent theme of Life on Mars, and not merely in a metaphorical “poetry-as-music” way. In “The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” “The Universe as Primal Scream,” and “Alternate Take” (the latter-most of these excluded from Such Color) Smith interrupts the vacuous quiet of outer space with her personal album collection. It seems fitting then that David Bowie, that elusive but inviting chameleon of styles who avoided easy categorization—pop star? glam artist? actor?—presides over the poems as a patron saint of sorts. And just as Bowie himself used his Ziggy Stardust persona to at once examine and comment on the culture he uneasily occupied, the figure of David Bowie serves a similar function for Smith:
After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
This poem “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” is the book’s most explicit homage to Bowie, who from these starry heights is not omniscient—“Not God, exactly”—but alien and alienated; yet constant and curious. His mute presence overhead allows the speaker to slowly articulate the grief animating the poem:
Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep
Or charging through his veins. And he’ll never grow old,
Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired
And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen
That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life
In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky
Thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands
Even if it burns.
A peculiar belatedness is perhaps evoked in the reader coming upon these words in the wake of David Bowie’s death in 2016 from liver cancer. Yet the irony here—the wry allusion to Bowie’s deathlessness—would still have sharply glimmered even when he was alive. His longevity as a musician, after all, was predicated on his mystifying ability to rejuvenate and reinvent his image almost continually. In a real way, he lived on by dying to his old self. Through Bowie, Smith is able to complicate the almost-but-not-quite Christian cosmology of Life on Mars where the perspective of the poems is at once widened and, as a result, magnified. The speaker stares first at the wide expanse of immortality, and within that immensity zooms in on one particular moment from her childhood. Meanwhile all the pressure of time in the form of aging, sickness, and loss presses in from the periphery, much as one feels the universe pressing against the narrow aperture of a telescope. The memory of the poet’s father is placed subtly before the reader through the very gestures of the language. This new sense of vision is the collection’s greatest virtue. Though some of the writing is still troubled by an unevenness of tone and diction (“They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected,” for instance), the point of view is more connected than fragmented, more panoramic than frenetic. In Life on Mars, Smith draws nearer to a method that allows her to integrate all these various modes of knowledge—astronomy, physics, pop culture, and theology—cohesively into her poems.
In 2017, Tracy K. Smith was named to the first of her two terms as US Poet Laureate. While the position retains a certain honor as the public spokesperson for American poetry, it’s also hard to imagine a role more uncomfortably situated between the politics of the country as a whole and the politics of the immensely circumscribed writing world. A profile on Smith in the New York Times Magazine written during her tenure gingerly detailed this tension in 2018. The Poet Laureate of the United States, the Times noted, is “explicitly discouraged from commenting on policy,” even as the position ostensibly represents the government in a nominal sense. A poet appointed to a position with no real power, discouraged from using her most powerful resource (language) on matters of state? This is the context in which Wade in the Water was published, Smith’s strongest full-length collection to date. It’s also her most overtly political one, seen especially in the abundance of erasure poems which frame the book. A number of poets in recent years have employed erasure to demonstrate how inclusion in and deletion from certain documents is itself a political state. For example, in her 2017 collection Whereas, Layli Long Soldier manipulates the formal apology Barack Obama issued to Native Americans as a way of critiquing the language enlisted by the US government to justify violence against Native peoples. Reginald Dwayne Betts, in Felon, heavily redacts court documents to reflect the near obliteration of an incarcerated person’s legal status.
Erasure as a result enacts both a deconstructive and constructive project. But where Long Soldier and Betts shape their erasures with clear, ironically edged arguments, in Smith’s hands the arguments that arise from her erasures feel secondary. Secondary, although not muted or muddled—Smith poignantly details the blaring hypocrisy Black soldiers faced following the Civil War, as well as the insolvent moral position of slaveholders, through her curation of archival materials, mainly letters. But the primary impression the reader—this reader, at least—comes away with is how deeply the voices that populate Wade in the Water still ache with humanity. To read lines like “now I am old and my head is blossoming / for the grave,” or “I always signed my name while in the army / by making my mark / I know my name by sound,” is to come into contact, first and foremost, with a soul speaking. Regarding her long sequence of erasure poems “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All about It,” Smith writes in the notes: “Once I began reading these texts, it became clear to me that the voices in question should command all the space within my poem.” Composition here becomes a process of discernment rather than pure creation. Yet the fact that Smith prunes through such extensive correspondence and extracts only the most essential of utterances, the speech that still reaches all the way into the twenty-first century, is an achievement that is in a certain sense incarnational.
Thus Wade in the Water could justly be considered Smith’s most overtly devotional book as well. The titles of the poems themselves reveal to the reader the religious tenor suffusing the collection, such as “Garden of Eden,” “The Angels,” “Eternity,” Beatific,” or “Annunciation.” But as one discovers that Smith’s Garden of Eden is a grocery store, or the angels she references are kitschy motel decorations, or that the object of her beatific vision is a slow-moving jaywalker, the poems don’t ascend to a many-mansioned transcendence. They root themselves instead in our recognizable, difficult, earthly kingdom, where God’s appearance is frayed by history:
O Woods—O Dogs—
O Tree—O Gun—O Girl, run—
O Miraculous Many Gone—
O Lord—O Lord—O Lord—
Is this love the trouble you promised?
What does it mean that the Lord and these fractured scenes of American slavery share in the same mode of praise? For Smith, love—of the Lord, of country, of poetry—is an act, a process one continually dives into, a trouble that is never resolved but deepened. Her theology absolves no one from this responsibility, not even God, whose own mysterious participation in this undertaking can be felt in the very form the book takes.
My favorite poem in all of Wade in the Water, indeed in all of Such Color, is the flatly titled “Political Poem.” But rather than burden the poem with the noise of the contemporary political moment—the crises that have fallen away to new crises—Smith chooses to imagine two men as they mow grass in a wide field, working interminably at the task, threading back and forth, passing each other as they cut their lines. The labor is endless, but not altogether aimless; the syntax, like the action of the poem itself, is elliptical, unpredictable, alluring. Like God, the poem concludes not with perfect understanding but in awe:
If they could, and if what glimmered
like a fish were to dark back and forth across
that wide wordless distance, the day, though gone,
would never know the ache of being done.
If they thought to, or would, or even half-wanted,
their work—the humming human engines
pushed across the grass, and the grass, blade
after blade, assenting—would take forever.
But I love how long it would last.
Smith here is a poet fully possessed by her ear, fully trusting in it to lead her to that final, astonishing sentence at the end of so many weaving phrases: “But I love how long it would last.” Listening to these lines is a reminder of how sound moves faster than sense. Coherence here, like faith, is achieved through patience and attention to the language. In Wade in the Water, the language—line-to-line as well as poem-to-poem—moves with clear purpose into a marvelous collection. To read these poems, these humming human engines, is a joy.
And the new poems? Gathered under the title Riot, these eighteen entries continue building on Smith’s growing commitment to a civic poetry. The writing is still endowed with the hard-won sonic precision and incisiveness Smith developed over the past two decades, though one intuits a more comprehensive, acerbic historical sense, an irony which hones the poems. They are Smith’s best poems so far:
The ancestors live upstairs in a room without chairs.
When I visit, they welcome me without words.
They crouch, encircling me. They are without edges.
Wordless, they fill me. Warmth without weight.
I ask for something. Without shame, I beg.
They owe me nothing. But they give. They give.
Notice the repetition of “without” at the end of nearly each line, as though the presence of the ancestors is understood most keenly through their absence. Or the subtle half-rhyme between “edges” and “begs,” which suggest an aural and temporal continuity as the words move down the page. The poet here is at once possessed by these warm, weightless voices, and in full possession of her own voice. Which is to say: I hold in admiration these songs of Smith’s hard-won style. The finest of these new poems are “We Feel Now a Largeness Coming On,” “Mothership,” “Dock of the Bay,” “I Sit Outside in Low Late-Afternoon Light to Feel Earth Call to Me,” and “Logos.” Taken along with the rest of Such Color, Smith has compiled far more than a retrospective of her career. The whole collection stands as testimony to a moral authority few poets—few people—can honestly claim. What could be more vital than a sensibility that can contain so much human life and all its turbulent, fleshy, sensual singing, especially in an age where we are increasingly atomized as a collection of consumer demographics? Tracy K. Smith has placed herself among the small handful of poets writing today with the social consciousness and talent necessary to meet our historical moment.