Professor op de Beeck
5 November 2019
A Powerful Collection of Emotions
Tracy K. Smith’s collection of poems, Wade in the Water, seems to focus quite a bit on the lives of other people in contrast to many of her former collections, that focused a lot more on a “first person” narrative. The poems that stand out the most to me are the poems in the second section of the collection. They mostly focus on the country’s history of racial injustice from the 19th century. In this section, she has a number of poems that are based off the letters of African Americans who were Union soldiers during the Civil War, as well as letters from members of their families. The poems from this section are mostly pieces of primary sources that were written during the 1860s. Smith does a beautiful job of this and as Charles Simic points out, Smith, “preserves the original spelling and punctuation, then titles and resets them so they look like poems” (Paragraph 4). He says that when Smith took a writing hiatus and turned to photography for a bit, “she realized that vivid imagery could go far toward condensing a poem’s narrative and conveying feelings” (Paragraph 6). I could not agree more. The way she preserves the original spelling in the letters from these former slaves, is a fantastic way to hear the writers voice rather than her own. You get a better understanding of the lack of education slaves were subjected to and the way these family members write to each other are filled with emotions that seem purely genuine. If the spellings were corrected, the letters would seem more formal and would not appear any different from an educated white persons letter from this time. It gives the letters more of a voice which I think is very important in poetic writing.
The poems from section II really highlight, arguably the most shameful era of the United States’ history. It was an era of injustice and unrestrained racism. Charles Simic notes that while Smith was the sitting poet laureate, she decided to address “some of the nation’s enduring wounds” (Paragraph 7). I think her position as poet laureate and the release of her new collection of poems demonstrate that she is not willing to let the time period be forgotten. It is important for this history to be archived and reported rather than swept under the rug like it had never happened. I think part of why this happens comes from the nation’s shame of that era and many of the atrocities that happened in the past such as the Tulsa race riots of 1921. Until recently, the incident could not be found in textbooks and the United States would rather have had this shameful event forgotten instead of being taught in our country’s classrooms. However, history is not meant to be buried. It is meant to be remembered and used as a reference of past mistakes. History is something to learn from. She has a poem titled “New Road Station,” that makes me believe she would agree. She writes:
Perhaps history is the bus that will only wait so long
Before cranking its engine to barrel down
The road. Maybe it is the voice coming in
Through the radio like a long-distance call.
Or the child in the crook of his mother’s arm
Who believes history must sleep inside a tomb,
Or the belly of a bomb.
I think these lines mean that periods of history only remain relevant for a small duration of time before they begin to fade in people’s minds. Before people behave like it never happened. In fact, when people do sometimes speak about such periods of history, their knowledge of it can seem exceptionally poor and significant pieces of information of the events are missing. As if they learned about it through a bad radio connection that prevented them from hearing most of the information. Or maybe people would rather dismiss history like it is something that has died and no longer holds significance. It will be forgotten until the unrest becomes so unbearable it is like a bomb that explodes into a new national period of unrest and revives a lot of the pain from the past and is something the country will once again have to acknowledge in order to go about solving.
Tracy K Smith’s “Wade in the Water” was released in 2018. It being such a recent release makes me wonder if many of these poems that touch upon racial injustice, are in response to current racial tensions. In the last several years there have been dozens of cases of police brutality and deaths of African Americans that have sparked a lot of controversy in current American society. The number of cases has grown considerably high in just a few years and have even sparked several African American movements such as “Black Lives Matter” that have grabbed a lot of national attention. Afterall, Simic even comments that Smith’s poems have an “exquisite sense of timing” (Paragraph 6). As the country’s former poet laureate, it only seems natural that she would publish a section of her poems as a form of social commentary. Her poems show that the United States has made progress over the last 150 years, but with the current racial divide, its clear that there is still a long way to go before these issues will be solved and they prove that racial inequality is nothing new, and has persisted for well over a century, despite of what many Americans would have you believe.
Although Smith’s collection of poems tend to have a large emphasis on political issues of the United States, it is not the entirety of her new work. In part IV of the collection, she transitions back into more of a “first person” style of poetry. In this section of the book it becomes a lot more intimate and personal. As a mother, she even writes about her daughter in the poems, “4 ½” and “Dusk.” Describing her mornings with her daughter and the observation of her child reaching her, self-absorbed time of her childhood. Smith even writes a seemingly uncharacteristic and more of a mysterious and kind of spooky poem about a murderous house too, that she titled “Ash.” It gives off a really eerie feeling that leaves the reader uncomfortable in her graphic description of this killer house that even appears to be sentient. Her poetry in the collection “Wade in the Water” contains a plethora of mixed emotions. It contains poems that are light-hearted and fun, poems that are historic and sympathetic, as well as poems that are warm and inviting. “Wade in the Water” contains such a vast array of emotions, it makes me believe that anyone can pick it up and feel a connection to a number of her works. It is truly a work of literary art.
Simic, Charles. “In Her New Work, a Public Poet Balances the Personal and Political.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Apr. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/26/books/review/wade-in-the-water-tracy-k-smith.html.
Smith, Tracy K. WADE IN THE WATER. Graywolf Press, 2019.