Wade in the Water
Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith
Graywolf Press, 2018. 83 pp.
Reviewed by Susanna Lang
Wade in the Water is, wonderfully, a Poet Laureate’s book—a book that speaks for the poet herself and for us all, at a perilous moment in our history. In a recent podcast of her conversation with Curtis Fox of the Poetry Foundation, Tracy K. Smith says that being Poet Laureate is “a kind of service (Off the Shelf, July 31, 2018).” Poetry allows us to bridge our differences, to remind ourselves “that we do have things to say to each other, that we are interested in each other’s lives and vulnerabilities.” In this new collection, Smith explores, mourns and even celebrates those vulnerabilities, both national and individual.
Many of the poems focus on history, whether spiritual or political. The opening and closing poems refer to the most familiar Biblical stories. In “Garden of Eden,” the first poem in the collection, Smith remembers shopping at a grocery store in Brooklyn that was actually called the Garden of Eden. In its nostalgia for the pastries, the exotic fruits, and the black beluga lentils of her past, the poem invokes blessing and abundance, removed in time but newly desired in this moment when we see
The known sun setting
On the dawning century.
The final poem, “An Old Story,” exposes our tendency to destroy our own world by reminding us of the Biblical storm that drowned all life except for Noah, his family, and the pairs of animals he saved on his ark:
Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind.
Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful
After the storm, it is song that changes the weather, tempts the animals to come down from the trees where they had sheltered—in an ark made of wood but not by us. Song allows us to hope for new connections:
We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.
The interior sections of Smith’s collection lift up others’ voices and names, to which she joins her own. “Declaration” uses erasure to repurpose Thomas Jefferson’s litany of complaints against King George, evoking the slaves’ forced migration to this country and their experience here of unspeakable oppression. In a technique that feels like the opposite of erasure, “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All about It” accumulates voices from African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, and also from their families. Similarly, “Theatrical Improvisation” draws on the voices of immigrants as well as those who targeted them in the months before and after the 2016 Presidential election.
Although the last section of the book includes poems with a similarly wide lens, Smith also evokes small moments with her children. Parenting is such an intimate experience, but we have all been parented and many of us have struggled through these moments when our children’s voices trumpeting their separate identities are both miracle and monumental challenge. It’s refreshing to hear from a Poet Laureate who holds all of these diverse concerns in her mind and in her voice, from our national tragedy to a four-year-old’s refusal to eat her dinner. This is an essential book, one that should be required reading throughout the land.
Susanna Lang’s newest collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in summer 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013). A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems have appeared in such publications as Little Star, Prairie Schooner, december, American Life in Poetry and Verse Daily. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language. Among her current projects is Self-Portraits, a chapbook collection of ekphrastic poems focused on women artists. She lives with her husband in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com.