The Trouble You Promised: Reading Tracy K. Smith
By Sumita ChakrabortyAugust 26, 2018
— “Joy,” The Body’s Question (2002)
There are ways of naming the wound.
— “History,” Duende (2007)
Would your life say if it could talk?
— “No-Fly Zone,” Life on Mars (2011)
We wept to be reminded of such color.
— “An Old Story,” Wade in the Water (2018)
TRACY K. SMITH has often spoken about her affinity with Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Dickinson’s poem doesn’t bemoan obscurity and insignificance; it celebrates them. It also castigates those who feel otherwise:
How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!
You can hear echoes of Dickinson’s discomfort with such a “dreary,” “public” “Somebody” in the replies that Smith gives to questions like, “So how does one become the poet laureate?” This question begins a profile of Smith in Roll Call, and the profile responds by quoting Smith: “That’s something I really don’t know the answer to […] I’ve just been doing what I do and got the phone call one day.”
Smith has been in dialogue with Dickinson’s poem since long before such queries were put to her. Her poems often interrogate what it means to be an “I,” and, by extension, what kind of an “I” makes a good poet. Smith’s “I” is fluid. It believes in its expansiveness, but it’s also profoundly humble, cognizant of the fact that there is nothing smaller than one individual’s life, or even than the species as a whole. At the same time, Smith’s sense of the smallness of the “I” doesn’t yield dismissiveness. In “The Nobodies” (a clear allusion to Dickinson’s poem) in Duende, Smith imagines “the first man” as composed of, in part, “divine shit”: the word “divine” is as intentional as “shit,” a tension that will later take on the scale of the cosmos throughout Life on Mars.
When the Times Higher Education asked Smith the “impossible question” (Smith’s words) of what the most “evocative” or “powerful line of poetry” is, Smith offered D. H. Lawrence’s “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through.” The poem segues from the negation “Not I, not I” into a demanding conceptualization of an “I”: one partially earthbound and partially comprised of wind; one at once Aeolian, Promethean, and Sisyphean; “a winged gift” who “yields” to other forces; receptive to both wonder and fear; as “keen and hard” as the “sheer tip of a wedge” and yet “sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate.” Smith told the Times Higher Education that she thought this kind of “I” best suits the “sense of wish, threat and courage that sits at the heart of the creative process,” which she finds well portrayed by the last five lines of Lawrence’s poem:
What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.
Every poet has more than three “strange angels” — and by angels I mean something like obsessions, following Smith’s lead — knocking at the threshold of the house of their work. This is a brief history of four that Smith engages in her poems, including in her new collection, Wade in the Water, in which that house, as she writes in “Ash,” is a “[s]trange house we must keep and fill.”
Smith’s speakers don’t have the faux authority of a croaking “Somebody.” She’s seldom content to even rest with her own versions of authority, which range from the “soft truth” of The Body’s Question to the “epic” swagger of Duende and the negotiations of vastly different scales of space in Life on Mars. But one thing has tended to remain consistent, and it’s “majusculation”: the capitalization of the first letter in every line of a poem, from the noun “majuscule.” I learned this word from Lucie Brock-Broido, who was also Smith’s teacher, and the first time I heard her talk about it, I thought it was spelled majesculate. Majusculation can give a poem majesty; the poem seems to stand upright, with all of its oblique and elliptical utterances yoked to the vertebrae of its left margin. Smith has been a majusculator through all four of her collections.
Smith’s reimaginings of authority are fundamentally intertwined with concerns about race, as well as about gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic class, all of which she has explicitly addressed. She has given us a small Black girl as a poem’s authoritative center (reminiscent of Lucille Clifton’s “the earth is a living thing”); she has made the voices of victims of hate crimes echo from America’s most iconic monuments. Which is why I struggled somewhat with Smith’s remark, in an interview with The Adroit Journal, that it wasn’t until she wrote her memoir Ordinary Light (2015) that she realized “how much [she] needed to talk about race.” It’d been my sense that, implicitly and explicitly, she’d been talking about race for years.
But there is something new in Wade in the Water. For example, in some of its moments Smith’s majusculation falls apart in a newly spectacular manner. It happens often in “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It,” a poem composed of text from two Civil War–era sources: letters written by Black soldiers and their family members, and petitions by Black veterans and their families to gain access to their own pensions. This poem shares a spirit with “History” from Duende, in which Smith admits that “there are victims” that can be found within her poem’s body and describes her poem as “the army / left behind.” The same could be said of the speakers of Wade in the Water. But in Wade in the Water, although much of the volume remains majusculated, the army rearranges the poems’ spinal columns in a way that Duende didn’t fully permit.
Smith’s syntactical innovations make the army even more palpable and ferocious. It reminds me of how the theorist Michel Foucault, in the astonishing essay “The Lives of Infamous Men,” describes archival records that bear the trace of the “jostling violence” of encounters between people and the systems of power they live in. He describes the “intensity that sparks through” such archives as capable of jolting their readers, as far off in time and space as they may be. An example by way of Smith:
Mr abarham lincon
I wont to knw sir if you please
whether I can have my son relest
from the arme he is all the subport
I have now his father is Dead
“[M]y head,” reports this first speaker, “is blossaming.” The poem ends with its many speakers introducing themselves to us in phrases that trail off, ending with em dashes, like so: “I am on the rise of 80 years of age — ” And what are those em dashes? Arms? Spears? The trailing echoes of their voices?
That the authority of this army of living ghosts is strong enough to disrupt the firm spine of majusculation makes the army seem capable of innervating everyone else in the collection. They send jolts through the way she imagines the divine in “Hill Country,” the way she continues to figure the world as a young girl at the most chilling moments, and the way she returns to the figure of her own daughter, who is newly insistent on her own authority: “‘I want that,’ she says, / Punctuating just what she said she wanted.” Their authority gives perfectly ordinary people the power to arrest the world, as in “Charity,” in which a woman captures the speaker’s rapt attention simply by carrying heavy bags, or in “Beatific,” in which a man garners the awe of everyone stuck in traffic around him simply by crossing a street very slowly.
Smith writes in “Dusk” that in Wade in the Water, she is speaking as someone for whom something “woke to war” as her daughter’s “shoulders,” which are “[s]till so naïve as to stand squared, erect, / Impervious,” begin to confront the “darkening dusk.” Even D. H. Lawrence’s speaker fears that the knocking at his door is coming from “somebody [who] wants to do us harm,” and Smith is speaking with those who have even better reasons to be terrified. Those reasons are why the word “Man” causes entire ecosystems to “[t]remble” in the poem “Deadly.” They’re the voices in “The United States Welcomes You,” who ask questions that are far from welcoming; they’re the agony that shimmers to the surface in “Declaration,” Smith’s erasure of the Declaration of Independence. They’re the “men” in “The World Is Your Beautiful Younger Sister” who gaze on the world’s “astonishing new breasts,” and those in “A Man’s World,” who “will surely take it out when you’re alone” and “swear he’s never shown it / To anyone else before.” The way Smith reimagines authority in Wade in the Water is in the service of one ferocious goal: that someday, in the face of these foes, we will be able to say that “our singing,” in the words of “An Old Story,” has “[b]rought on a different manner of weather.”
There’s a poem in Life on Mars called “Everything That Ever Was,” in which Smith describes “a little tickle of knowledge” deep within the soil on which her speaker sits. I thought of it when I came across this line from Wade in the Water: “I suspect that Earth may be a place of education.” This line appears in “Watershed,” a found poem drawn from narratives describing near-death experiences and an article about the DuPont corporation, responsible for vast amounts of ecological devastation. The word watershed means a bit of land that channels waters into disparate rivers; it’s also the metaphorical equivalent of such a geographical feature, a turning point. The idea that “Earth may be a place of education” is a crucial maxim for Smith across her career, and Wade in the Water is no exception. It finds Smith still convinced in the importance and inevitability of learning. But it also finds Smith at a turning point: one in which her speakers believe it imperative to enter into those underground waters, even though this labor will never promise security, and even though those waters are likely saturated with poisons.
Yet many of the experiences Smith’s speakers have with this “place of education” are, importantly, not portrayed as disasters. Consider “Urban Youth,” which draws attention to the United States’s hatred for Black youth and families (often invoked through racist dog-whistle words like “Urban”) while giving us a scene of a young child simply — and blissfully — learning to ride a bike. More broadly, Smith’s speakers often find themselves misunderstanding their surroundings, which is rendered simply as part of the daily work of existence rather than as a catastrophe. In “The Angels,” for example, her speaker sees “dead // Does, lions in crouch” instead of boulders and “an owl” instead of a pipe. What else has she misrecognized, she wonders. Has she (like D. H. Lawrence’s speaker before her initially did) missed “[s]ightings, flashes, hints” of angels? In this Smith’s speakers are sometimes reminiscent of the flies in her poem “New Road Station,” which watch the world “with their million eyes” as “[h]istory spits Go, go, go, lurching at the horizon / Hammering at the driver’s headrest with her fist.” Lurching, hammering: There’s no point in the future at which Smith imagines that this daily process of learning will end.
Although Smith conveys such daily learning as expected, she doesn’t hesitate to draw attention to how deadly and painful the lessons learned from those encounters can often be. In fact, her stance toward the inevitability of learning often makes the volume’s interest in the world’s more agonizing lessons all the more bracing. It goes back to the way Smith’s “I” is both expansive and small: although her speakers frequently learn via misunderstanding, they also have the capacity for great and keen insight. Although her speakers know that the Earth has a great deal to teach them, as she writes in the poem “Annunciation,” they also know that sometimes, they can “hop[e] only to be ground to dust / By something large and strange and cruel.”
“By something large and strange and cruel.” Notice the way unadorned, single-syllable words are here strung together paratactically, with a mere additive conjunction. The line sounds matter-of-fact as a result; it describes the mercilessness of the world with a set jaw. A similar grimness emerges in poems like “The Greatest Personal Privation,” in which Smith transforms phrases from a slave owner’s letter into a poem voiced by the slaves. The poem’s thesis is blunt: “The whole country / Will not come back // From the sale of parent / And child.” When the poem then repeats its haunting refrain — “Many, many, very many times” — it suggests the perpetual nature of its tale. In moments like this, Smith’s straightforwardness translates into a sense that from all of this learning comes an ever-increasing amount of work to do. As Smith asks in “Realm of Shades”: “What was our work?”
This call to labor is a permutation of the more playful versions of learning that readers who are most familiar with, for example, The Body’s Question might expect. In her first collection, Smith often explores how much Earth has to teach us from the vantage point of a child, like the one in “Five Dreams of Offspring” who is “[o]utside of words” and “thinks you and she / Are birds,” a gentle rhyme that underscores the dreamy rhythm of the volume’s many such moments. The world’s shadows are also present, but they’re less ominous than Wade in the Water’s “darkening dusk.” In “Drought,” Smith’s speaker can feel her own shadow when it “rose and entered me, / And on the third day, it began to speak, / Naming me.” This shadow may turn out to be frightful; maybe it already is. But it’s also a “[s]oft, whispering, steady thing,” to borrow a phrase from “Night Letters.” It’s not that it’ll never be this way again (see again “Urban Youth”), but it never again feels quite this central.
Where The Body’s Question watches “[t]he shapes of words enter and play / At making sense” (“Betty Blue”), Duende finds them “[w]hittled and stretched into meaning. / And meaning here is: line” (“History”). The voices of Duende see a more violent edge to the process of education, and the act of learning reaches toward Wade in the Water’s set jaw. In “September,” Smith summarizes this transition: “Knowledge is regret […] We ride the season, married to the world.” In an autumnal month reminiscent of Keats’s interest in the “ripeness” of “the soft-dying day,” Smith’s speaker pronounces her resolute vows to a painful planet.
Then, “[t]he decade changed.” “We learned new words for things,” remarks the speaker of “My God, It’s Full of Stars” in Life on Mars, because we have been “to the edge of all there is” and found it “[s]o brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.” Shadow expands into dark matter. Life on Mars’s speakers are full of uncertainty, as seen in the many poems that try to figure out the best metaphor for the universe, or in the volume’s preponderance of questions, like, “Who understands the world, and when / Will he make it make sense? Or she?” Those inquiries come from the title poem, which juxtaposes the speaker with those who respond to their uncertainties by trying to transform the universe into a more legible space. But even “they” end up foiled. They insist that “[n]othing / Eludes them,” but, eventually, “the nothing that is // Something creeps toward them, wanting / To be felt.” And, yes, “they feel it.” If we ever rest in certainty, the implication goes, the labor of learning would stop. And the flies can never stop watching. There will always be work to do.
Each of Smith’s books vibrates with it. In The Body’s Question, which insists that “[w]e want so much” (“A Hunger So Honed”), Smith often explores need through touch and argues that it’s the very substance of a person. One poem gives us a “Self-Portrait as the Letter Y,” and the choice of the letter “Y” is telling; in another poem, “Prayer,” we learn that “Y” stands for “Yearning,” as well as a number of other words that are yearning’s kin, like “Yesterday,” “not Yet,” “Youth,” “Yours,” and even “Yogurt,” tied to “the mornings / You feed me.” Together, the poems say: a self is comprised of need.
If yearning is the connective tissue of The Body’s Question, it’s everything to Duende. It’s almost impossible to turn a page without running into the word “want” or one of its synonyms. Almost every speaker remarks directly about what they do or don’t want; some of them can merely echo “I want, I want” (“One Man at a Time”). Even the trees speak with “lust” (“Flores Woman”). I love the sequence of lines in “History” that dissects the desires of a poem itself, personified so it “doesn’t give a shit” and can “wander / Into a department store,” “pop pills,” have the stereo “blaring.” The bottom line: As a line says in “I Don’t Miss It,” “It’s impossible not to want.” Duende goes so far as to suggest that people require yearning to live, and that our life’s work is to sustain desire.
The cartography of desire shuffles in Life on Mars to accommodate the space of the cosmos. Often this volume imagines a world in which desire has become obsolete, as in the aptly titled “The Museum of Obsolescence”:
So much we once coveted. So much
That would have saved us, but lived,
Instead, its own quick span, returning
To uselessness with the mute acquiescence
Of shed skin.
If Duende thinks, “It’s impossible not to want,” Life on Mars imagines what happens if that impossibility should come to pass. And sometimes, that seems less like an impossible imagined future and more miserably true. Yet Life on Mars ultimately agrees with Duende about the impossibility of existence without desire, both because Smith renders its imagined absence in palpably sensory rhetoric and because in order to convey the grief of its possible absence, desire’s presence has to be taken seriously. We are governed, as Smith reminds us in “Willed in Autumn,” by whatever “tune” our “heart ticks out.”
Wade in the Water at first seems less invested in yearning than her earlier books, particularly when read alongside the overwhelming and palpable needs in Duende. Yet the book begins with a poem titled “Garden of Eden,” which, in turn, begins with “profound longing”:
What a profound longing
I feel, just this very instant,
For the Garden of Eden
On Montague Street
Where I seldom shopped,
Usually only after therapy,
Elbow sore at the crook
From a handbasket filled
At first, “longing” feels like the set-up for a joke, and, in a way, it is: the lofty, “profound” idea of desiring the Biblical Garden of Eden subverted into desire for a store. I heard Smith read from Wade in the Water at Emory University a few months before the book’s release, and she read this turn with humor; when she got to “[u]sually only after therapy,” many of us laughed in recognition.
But while Smith is playfully making earthly the Garden of Eden (as she does elsewhere with other divine tropes), the chuckle in the lines doesn’t erase the profundity of their desire, since we often do keenly desire that which is mundane. The etymology of “profound,” after all, doesn’t imply transcendence, but that which has “great downward or inward extent.” So when we see her brimming handbasket, we see that it’s filled, yes, with food from a market, but its contents don’t seem all that distant from the lusty apple in Eden, or from the many other drool-worthy fruits in lyric history: Keats’s, Christina Rossetti’s, Dickinson’s, Robert Frost’s, Wallace Stevens’s, William Carlos Williams’s, Clifton’s, Seamus Heaney’s (another one of Smith’s teachers) …
… The glossy pastries!
Pomegranate, persimmon, quince!
Once, a bag of black beluga
Lentils spilt a trail behind me
While I labored to find
A tea they refused to carry.
It was Brooklyn. My thirties.
Everyone I knew was living
The same desolate luxury,
Each ashamed of the same things:
Innocence and privacy.
What Milton calls “Man’s first disobedience” isn’t too removed from the more ordinary pleasures, especially when those pleasures are, in fact, extraordinary. Even in this moment of “desolate luxury,” the speaker hasn’t even been able to get all that she wants. When I was at my most broke, I was afraid of non-Spartan purchases not only for their individual cost, but because I feared they’d open doors of desire within me, as though once I’d tasted pomegranates and persimmons (which were Persephone’s fruits, too), I’d become some less fantastic version of Rossetti’s “sweet-tooth Laura,” who, with “no coin,” “no copper,” and “no silver,” is willing to trade the “golden curl” of hair on her head to have the pleasure of having “suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more.” The “bank-balance math” of desire, to return to “The Garden of Eden,” is no dim flicker: it’s as fierce as “the known sun setting / On the dawning century.”
While we often try to distinguish between forms of love, Smith’s work tends to trouble those distinctions. Her poems quickly slide from dreaming of a past lover to gazing affectionately at a child; eros can intrude swiftly into what initially seemed closer to a much more casual affinity. And because Smith never forces these slippages into easy resolution, well before she came to link “love” with “trouble” explicitly in Wade in the Water (more on that later), love has always meant a kind of trouble.
Even as early as The Body’s Question, love dwells in paradox. In “Credulity,” she describes it as a personified force that can be studied and cajoled; in “Escape Fantasy,” she contends that it can only be accessed through mendacity. Here is a mind grappling with how to access and inhabit a concept of great significance, like a strange new syntax. In fact, one thing about love is certain to this speaker: it is a discourse, since — as Smith writes in “Wintering,” a poem that shares its title with an earlier poem by Sylvia Plath — to love is to “speak another language.”
Paradox and love remain intertwined in Duende. It insists that wanting to love is “The Opposite of War,” and yet its take on love is decidedly battle-weary, as in “Letter to a Photojournalist Going-In”:
… Who can say the word love
When everything — everything — pushes back with the promise
To grind itself to dust?
Many of the speakers of Duende grapple with the challenge of renouncing love while insisting that it is, in fact, crucial: “a momentary lapse of treason” (“Poem in Which Nobody Says ‘I Told You So’”). A number of them are thinking about the dissolution of a romantic relationship. Others revel in sex without love, although their constant use of the word “love” tells us that it remains important to them, too. And some, like the speakers of the devastating “Into the Moonless Night” (a poem in the form of a drama, largely voiced by women kidnapped as teenagers by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda), find themselves — from within the deepest traumas — asking why they continue to yet “love life.”
As is the case with desire, Life on Mars imagines a world in which love has ceased to be, although, again as with desire, its absence is a presence. The title poem wonders if dark matter attaches us to one another in love’s absence; “Love” appears alongside “Illness” (a choice that indicates that Life on Mars, too, is battle-weary) as exhibits in “The Museum of Obsolescence.” Love’s absence and its relation to violence become ghostly in “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected.” Here, the speaker Smith imagines as Brisenia Flores uses “Love” to sign off her postcard to her murderer, and the one she imagines as Johanna Justin-Jinich writes to her murderer that without her body, which she’d once imagined as “a container for love,” she feels a “kind of ecstasy.” Is this because she’s now free of her body — or because she’s free of love?
In her interview with The Adroit Journal, in addition to remarking on Wade in the Water’s interest in race, Smith also describes it as interested in love. Of note here is that very confluence between the two. One of the main love poems in Wade in the Water is “Unrest in Baton Rouge,” which is a response to an iconic 2016 photograph. You know it: it shows a Black woman named Ieshia Evans, who’s in Baton Rouge protesting Alton Sterling’s murder. Evans, wearing a gray and black dress that flutters in the breeze, stands in front of two police officers in riot gear, arms outstretched.
At first blush, “Unrest in Baton Rouge” may give the impression that it believes love might unite all humans, even “the men in black armor” with Evans:
Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else
Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?
We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.
Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.
But Smith is too skeptical about such simplistic visions of unity. (In fact, “History” in Duende even takes aim at the pronoun “we,” declaring that although “[t]here is a We in this poem / To which everyone belongs,” the pronoun is “a huckster” who “will draw you in” until it has “swallowed Us and Them,” and, at some point in the future, “You.”) It’s not that Smith resists all collectivity. Wade in the Water’s “Eternity” contends that “all of us must be / Buried deep within each other,” and “Political Poem” imagines a brief “instant of common understanding” between two mowers. Even in “Unrest in Baton Rouge,” the first-person plural is in full force, although it carefully excludes those who do not “watch and grieve.” Rather, Smith’s idea of collectivity is always nuanced with ample internal distinctions. And collectivities formed by love? Well, for Smith, love never does a singular thing. Remember how Smith writes in her first book that to love is to “speak another language”? The sentiment returns in “Unrest in Baton Rouge,” but in the later poem she wonders aloud whether some don’t practice it: “Is it strange to say love is a language / Few practice, but all, or near all speak?”
Wade in the Water’s title poem is dedicated to the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters. It begins with one of the Ring Shouters greeting the speaker with the phrase “I love you.” As if to return to The Body’s Question’s debate regarding credulity and mendacity, the speaker admits, “I believed her.” But no comfort accompanies that belief. Instead, “a terrible new ache / Rolled over in my chest.” The poem goes on to repeat “I love you” so many times that her speaker comes to hear it “in every / Handclap, every stomp.” Soon there is nothing in this site — the unmarked location of slave auctions — that does not seem to say the phrase, even the “rusted iron / Chains.” I love you ushers the poem into its exhausted, overwhelmed end, in which the speaker gasps apostrophes to a terrifying scene, its imagined victims, and a divine:
… I love you,
The angles of it scraping at
Each throat, shouldering past
The swirling dust motes
In those beams of light
That whatever we now knew
We could let ourselves feel, knew
To climb. 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?
Smith recently delivered the 2018 commencement address at my alma mater, Wellesley College, and the subject she chose was love. The speech is available online. She spoke about love’s many forms; she read “Wade in the Water.” She spoke of love, contra “tolerance,” as a civic force. “Love,” she said, “is world-creating,” and “[r]enewal often arises only after a purposeful troubling.” It is 2018, and we exist, as Smith writes in “Ghazal,” under a sky that “is a dry pitiless white.” It is 2018, and “[t]he days,” as Smith writes in “Driving to Ottawa,” “[a]re bright but cold.” It is 2018, and the haunting question is, “How much more will we bury / In the earth?” There’s no easy response to this query. Rather, for Smith, the response is “this love,” this “trouble,” this blade, the heart’s meat; a stark and searing belief that, as the poem “Unwritten” instructs us, “for our own good we have to answer / For all that has happened. Please. All.”
Sumita Chakraborty is Visiting Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, as well as a Lecturer in English and Creative Writing, at Emory University. She is also poetry editor of AGNI and art editor of At Length.
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