Wade in the Waters
By Tracy K.Smith
Graywolf Press, 83 pp., $24.00
Wade in the Waters is Tracy K. Smith’s fourth collection of poetry, and it follows her 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning Life on Mars. In Life on Mars, Smith travels away from earth and its troubles to mourn, meditate and maybe to reconcile the loss of anchor. In this collection, she floats back only to find that the troubles and trespass she has left behind remain waiting for her reckoning.
Smith begins by establishing the cartography of our existence not on earth but at the site of departure, or for some, expulsion – the Garden of Eden. In the poem, the Garden is an upscale supermarket but it is also an obvious stand-in for the biblical/archetypal place where all our troubles started. It’s a place where the babes in the woods are awakened violently ( … “or close my eyes/And let it slam me in the face”) to face cruelty and sin. The life of plenty (“To capacity. The glossy pastries!/ Pomegranate, persimmon, quince!”) becomes a source of shame and longing.
From there, we move into the new century where the wars and venality has taken over the world; we see what we’ve done to the earth and to each other. There are angels as annunciators of death, and by extension, the apocalypse. Then there’s God himself taking time out to survey his creation (“Hill Country”). What God sees is lovely, but the picture of the world Smith presents to us is full of danger and transgressions, and the most dangerous creature is the human (“Thinks Man and witnesses/…/Every nation of beast and/ The wide furious ocean/And the epochs of rock/Tremble”). There is a sense that the destruction of the earth is akin to violation of a woman (“The World Is Your Beautiful Younger Sister”). Mostly, though, the destruction is global, and deadly to all. The most direct charge is leveled at DuPont in the found poem “Watershed,” where Smith enumerates the harm that PFOA has done to living creatures (“caused birth defects in rats/ caused cancerous testicular pancreatic and/ liver tumors in lab animals/possible DNA damage from exposure”).
Yet, for all of this grim indictment of our sins against the earth, the speaker’s sense of love is intact, even as she questions its power to redeem (“O Lord – O Lord – O Lord – /Is this love the trouble you promised?”).
With this mixture of faith and skepticism, Smith takes us for a tour of the past; namely, the particular chapter of our history that is one of the most brutally shameful. Part II starts with the erasure poem “Declaration” and moves on to the voices Smith excavated directly from “letters and statements of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, and those of their wives, widows, parents, and children” (“Notes”).
Like the speaker who gets slammed in the face in “Garden of Eden,” we are similarly struck by the nameless voices in this compilation. The long dead voices of each person wronged by inequality and neglect come across to us from a chasm of suffering. Each voice appeals not only to the humanity of those who had none to give, but to us, who are equally impotent in our sympathy. In “Ghazal,” the speaker uses the form to unite herself with these voices by the repetition of “our name,” thereby declaring her solidarity with those who are abandoned by history.
But they are not the only ones. Smith also includes those who are abandoned in the here and now. Part III starts with the poem “The United States Welcomes You,” whose title becomes more and more ironic as we go further in. In the poem “Theatrical Improvisation,” Smith based the discrete narratives on “real-life sources” (“Notes). These living voices now follow those who have gone before, thus dispelling in us any hope that even though past wrongs cannot be rectified, that we have learned from them. Yet, it seems that the poet cannot completely let go of the overall hope – or maybe the wishful vision – that reconciliation might be possible. In “A Political Poem,” she imagines that two neighbors mowing their lawns would connect with a simple act of greeting. She suggests that “If they could…/If they thought to, or would, or even half-wanted,” that might be the beginning of dialogue and perhaps understanding. It is the reimagining of the Cain and Abel story – the What If?
Perhaps this question can be brought beyond her own country to the bigger world – in this case China – a country whose history is bifurcated by extreme antiquity and modernism. The poems in “Eternity” stands as a rebuke to America’s exclusiveness. Unlike those voices in “Theatrical Improvisation,” she is “allowed in” here and steps outside of her own existence into another world. In “Landscape Painting,” she feels like she’s been here before (“It is as if I can almost still remember./As if I once perhaps belonged here.”). In these first two lines, the conditional terms,“As if,” “almost,” “perhaps,” suggest an uncertainty of, and a resistance to, the experience of spiritual reincarnation that the speaker somehow cannot dismiss.
But that is one piece of the larger question: What lasts? In the fifth part, “Mutianyu, Great Wall,” the speaker watches as an unsteady tourist on the Great Wall grabs a brick, and the brick crumbles. This vignette, slyly alluding to the proposed “Wall” endorsed by the current US President and his supporters, suggests that all walls, even the Great one, are more or less ephemeral.
So what lasts? Maybe the future. Or love.
The poems “4 ½” and “Dusk” in the final part (IV) describe her daughter and the child’s dawning awareness of her world and her appetite for it (“…She’s hungry. She wants”). In “Annunciation,” the speaker pits her shame she feels against her son’s lack of it. She’s ashamed “Of our magnificent paved roads,/ Our bridges slung with steel,” but her son is elsewhere, “…eyes set/ At an indeterminate distance,/ Ears locked, tuned inward, caught/In some music only he has ever heard.” So perhaps the future rests on our optimism and our capacity for compassion.
In Part IV is also where Smith considers those who are wounded, dispossessed, and otherwise lost by the world. In “Refuge” and “Charity,” she offers her love and empathy to the exiled, to the tired; she confers holiness to a disabled man. At the end, the poem “An Old Story” tells us that we were promised nothing but pain (“We were made to understand it would be/Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,”), but somehow, what we’ve destroyed might be saved. And when the speaker writes, “Large and old awoke. And then our singing/Brought on a different manner of weather./Then animals long believed gone crept down/From trees./ We took new stock of one another,” we are reminded of the music the boy hears, and for that moment, we can almost believe that all is not lost.