I read Tracy Smith’s Life On Mars earlier this year and was totally blow away. So I got my hands on her newest collection as quickly as I could. It was, if anything, better than I’d hoped. Smith’s language is so sharp and precise. She writes the kind of poems I could read over and over and over, not only because the language is so gorgeous, but because they are so clean and so quick, so cutting.
By far my favorite poems in the collection were the erasure poems and the various found poems, many which dealt with the civil war. ‘Declaration’, an erasure poem made up of text from the Declaration of Independence, was simply stunning. Smith has an incredible gift for this sort of poem. Reading ‘Deceleration’ was brutal, but in the best way, because it felt like a truth, a truth drawn from a racist, hypocritical, and unjust document, a document that happens to be one of the most treasured bits of our national mythology. I was simply astounded by both the beauty and simplicity of the poem, as well as Smith’s ability to peel away the layers of myth until she found truth.
There are several other erasure poems and found poems in the collection. Two of them are made up of correspondence between white slaveholders regarding the sale of their slaves. Smith uses these words to craft poems told from the point of view of those slaves. Again, it is brutal and powerful and so smart and absolutely chilling to read. There are so many layers of meaning to these poems–not just in the words themsleves, which Smith weaves into beauty, but also in what they say about the legacy of slavery, of who has a voice and who is silenced, and about erasure itself–of voices, bodies, histories, lives.
‘I Will Tell You The Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It’ is a poem composed of letters and statements from black Civil War soldiers, as well as their wives, friends, children, etc. This is another poem that blew me away. What amazed me was not just the brilliance and vision and patience it must take to weave so many pieces of correspondence into a poem, but also how vital, present, relevant the poem felt. Smith understands that those black Civil War soldiers still have something to say to us today, and she found a way to say it:
for instant look & see
that we never was freed yet
Run Right out of Slavery
In to Soldiery & we
hadent nothing at all &
our wifes & mother most all of them
is aperishing all about & we
all are perishing our self–
Smith also turns her keen eye to the present. In ‘The United States Welcomes You’ she writes:
Why and by whose power were you sent?
What do you see that you may wish to steal?
Why this dancing? Why do your dark bodies
Drink up all the light? What are you demanding
That we feel? Have you stolen something? Then
What is that leaping in your chest?
In ‘Theatrical Improvisation’ another found poem, she combines reported attacks on Muslim women after the 2016 election, (compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center), with appallingly violent Isalamophobic comments made in the news. Like the civil war found poems, this one is emotionally devastating. It also speaks right to the ugliest truths about our country in sharp and unyielding language. It is impossible to look away.
Smith combines the personal with the political, the past with the present, the words of the most hateful among us with the words of the most marginalized. She writes about parenthood, about love, about immigration and hate crimes and politics and longing, about the ways history haunts, and haunts, and haunts us. These are big and little poems, woven together seamlessly into a brilliant and moving collection about race in America, which is to say, about America itself.
I will be sitting with this book for a long time.