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Tracy K. Smith's poems function as a kind of confessional for humankind, resounding at once with the echoes of our worst deeds and our collective striving to forgive them, fueled by a hunger for faith and moral clarity.
August 19, 2014

Photo: Tina Chang, courtesy of Graywolf Press

I know you are deciding
That the body’s a question:

What do you believe in?

Hold that last line in your mind, because this question, with which an early poem about her mother’s illness ends, has ripples throughout Tracy K. Smith’s work. She tries out various responses to the query in her three highly acclaimed collections -- God, love, sex, compassion, life after death, aliens, entropy, David Bowie. And these are all right answers.

Smith’s first book, The Body’s Question, takes its title from this poem. Published in 2003 by Graywolf, the collection lays out many of the themes that will continue to preoccupy Smith as a writer and as a human being for years to come. One of the most prominent of these -- let’s start at the end -- is death. Her interest is not a depressive one; neither is it the academic affectation of a young Goth. Her concern is spiritual, but it’s also physical: it’s death, after all, that provokes the body’s question.

Like Shakespeare, Smith often gets at death through the metaphor of sleep. The first poem in this collection, “Something Like Dying, Maybe,” recounts a dream in which, Smith writes,

                  it was bright afternoon
Where I wandered. Pale faces all around me.
I walked and walked looking for a door,
For some cast-off garment, looking for myself
In the blank windows and the pale blank faces.

I found my wristwatch from ten years ago
And felt glad awhile.
When it didn’t matter anymore being lost,
The sky clouded over and the pavement went white. 

The speaker here is adrift among lost objects, but she is not gone. Rather, she’s slid between worlds. In fact, it’s when the speaker (and it is difficult to avoid identifying the speaker as Smith) accepts being lost that the scene changes, as if her soul has slipped back into her body. The cloud-bright afternoon and white pavement function much like the light described by people who have had near-death experiences. And then, when the speaker emerges from the slippage of her dream, she awakens next to her lover.

In “Brief Touristic Account,” Smith finds meaning in another tiny, easily-overlooked death: that of the worm in a bottle of tequila.

Its last happy exhalations,
Lungs giddy, mouth spilling
A necklace of miniscule bubbles
Through a world suddenly liquid […]?

Or something slower?
The long fall, the gradual
Unblurring. Disbelief
And then relief.
As when I woke
To the crackling of logs,
You in the foreground
Prodding the flames?

The dying worm wakes in a new world, an “unblurred” one, suggesting a sudden clarification of priorities. The beloved presence greeting the speaker each time she herself awakens, meanwhile, implies that love is one of those priorities. At the poem’s conclusion, Smith describes lying down next to her partner,

Already so far gone…
Lying beside you was like
Dangling a leg

Over the edge
Of a drifting boat.

 Much like the worm drowning in tequila, Smith’s lover has plunged before her into the underwater realm of sleep, beckoning her to follow. As in dreams, certain basic rules, like the force of gravity, work differently underwater. Her poems, likewise, operate under the rules of a more visceral logic. In fact, an audience member at Smith’s appearance last April in the Pen Pals readings series asked about her techniques for breaking away from the rules of everyday language in her writing. Smith described the process as an imitation of the “dream syntax” that takes you seamlessly “from a lecture hall to the dentist’s office.” She said she works by trying to “find ways of making leaps without plotting how to get there.”

Smith’s curiosity about death and the afterlife may stem from the deaths of her parents. She writes movingly of the loss of her mother in the masterful third section of The Body’s Question. In one untitled poem, Smith gradually builds a picture of her mother’s absence with quotidian brushstrokes:

The phone will ring late at night
And I’ll think about answering
With a question: What’s the recipe
For lasagna? Sometimes the smoke
Off my own cigarette fools me, and I think
It’s you running your hands
Along the dust-covered edges of things.

 The tricks her grief plays, that urge to conjure someone lost with just the right question, call to mind to the “magical thinking” Joan Didion describes in her memoir about the deaths of her husband and daughter. Smith’s father died in 2009, while she was at work on her third collection, Life on Mars (Graywolf, 2011) -- a book that went on to win the Pulitzer. His loss becomes bound up in the book’s theme. It’s a difficult collection to summarize in other than grand terms. These are poems about humanity’s cosmic destiny, and yet, despite that, Smith’s writing on the theme is not at all grandiose. Indeed, the more intimate reflections on her father, an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope, seem right at home. In a reading in Hopkins, Minnesota this past April, Smith talked about the period just after her father’s death, when she imagined him residing in a place of compassion. At the same time, in May 2009, a series of hate crimes were making the news, four of them in just one month. Reading the newspaper reports against the backdrop of that fresh grief, she said, challenged her to fit these terrible acts of violence into her newfound conception of the afterlife. She wondered: Could she write from the victims’ point of view as though their spirits, like her father’s, were filled with compassion?

The result is “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected,” a poem in six parts that culminates in some of Smith’s most self-assured, imaginative and arresting writing. Parts I through III engage in almost perfunctory exposition, but Part IV, subtitled “In Which the Dead Send Postcards to Their Assailants from America’s Most Celebrated Landmarks,” is a revelation in both concept and execution. The organizing principle of this section never feels gimmicky; rather, Smith gives each persona she creates a compelling, individual voice while maintaining a calm, even, warm tone throughout. One of the”postcards” -- from Stephen Tyrone Johns, the security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum who was killed by white supremacist James von Brunn -- reads in part:

Dear James,

I walked through the whole Mall today, from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. I thought I’d skip the Museum altogether, but my feet wanted to go there, so I let them. I stood outside the doors trying to see in, but it was so bright my own reflection was all that shone back at me.

Later in the poem, Smith has Johns describe passing through crowds the way he used to as a security guard, only now he literally passes through them: “Men, women, everyone, feeling untouched. But I’ve touched them.” In a sense, he’s a ghost lingering at the scene of the violence that took his life, but his haunting has a meditative, compassionate quality, more Bodhisattva than hungry shade. When he arrives at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Johns doesn’t revisit the horror of his own murder or the Nazis’ attempted genocide. Instead, Johns sees only his own shining likeness, and in it the very picture of enlightened loving-kindness.

Not every poet would dare to write about such tragedies as these. The themes are too big, too daunting: hatred, injustice, evil. But Smith balances their weight in the delicate vessels of her poems. While the personal isn’t necessarily political in her work, the political is personal indeed -- thorny issues are grounded in character and sensory detail, as when she writes from the viewpoint of undocumented Mexican immigrants in a strong series of poems in The Body’s Question. At the Pen Pals event, Smith said that as she wrote them, some of her subjects’ courage “rubbed off” on her. It does take courage to write this way, and a willingness to engage artistically with broad concepts of right and wrong. She embraces old-fashioned idealism at precisely the moment many of us have resigned ourselves to thinking in shades of gray.

Or, maybe we have simply been waiting for just such a writer to light a path through the moral fog to greater clarity. In Smith’s work, though, moral clarity doesn’t come from traditional religion; her judgments spring more from individual reason than dogma. In fact, her second collection, Duende (Graywolf, 2007), opens and closes with poems that mash up various belief systems:

We all know the story
Of that god. Written in smoke

 And set down atop other stories.
(How many others? Countless others.)

 In the competing narratives of religious traditions across the world, belief is a slippery thing -- anything is possible in some story or other. Smith’s poems embrace those quandaries without trying to resolve them. Duende concludes with “The Nobodies” and provocative half-statements rooted in mythology:

If it is true that the first man
Was fashioned of corn.
Of divine shit. Of dust--

 And then, later in the poem, Smith adds physics to the mix:

If the atom is cognizant, coy;
If light is both pow-wow
And tango--

Or both particle and wave? Smith shifts easily from sacred mysteries to scientific ones. Her description of the “cognizant, coy” atom brings to mind quantum physics, the way in which the act of observing inevitably changes the observed.

“The Nobodies” provides no independent clauses on which its dependent ones can hang. Like the articles of faith they suggest, the elements of these poems depend on nothing -- and nobody -- to back them up. In that lack of resolution, Duende is like a great song that ends on a dissonant chord. (The comparison to music is not unwarranted; one stanza reads, in its entirety, “If Satchmo-- If Leadbelly--”.)

Indeed, Smith writes wonderfully and surreally about music elsewhere, in “When Zappa Crashes My Family Reunion” (which delivers just what the title promises) and “Alternate Take,” which describes the Band’s Levon Helm, and his habit of “driv[ing] donuts through my mind’s back woods with that/Dirt-road voice of his, kicking up gravel like a runaway Buick.” And in her most recent book, Life on Mars, David Bowie looms large. In a poem that borrows its title from Bowie, “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?,” she pays homage to the Thin White Duke in his current incarnation as an anonymous New Yorker. (Like the poet, Bowie has many personae in his artistic back catalog.) For Smith, Bowie is the alien, and also the savior, who walks among us:

Bowie is among us. Right here
In New York City. [...]

 I’ve lived here all these years
And never seen him. Like not knowing
A comet from a shooting star.
But I’ll bet he burns bright,
Dragging a tail of white-hot matter
The way some of us track tissue
Back from the toilet stall.

 Such flashes of humor are something of an anomaly in Smith’s work. In fact, she often accesses her sense of humor sideways, by way of channeling some other artist -- Frank Zappa, David Bowie, even Charlton Heston, everyone’s favorite B-movie survivalist. For example, Smith imagines sitting down with Heston in “My God, It’s Full of Stars”:

He sits straight in his seat, takes a long, slow high-thespian breath,

Then lets it go. For all I know, I was the last true man on this earth.

 Smith has said that, as she wrote Life On Mars, she revisited sci-fi movies from her childhood -- 2001: A Space Odyssey, which gave the poem above its title, and Heston’s cheesy classics, The Omega Man and Soylent Green. Smith’s more thorough-going integration of pop culture into high art in Life on Mars feels very of-the-moment: as the pop critic Carl Wilson recently remarked, the literati pick and choose their cultural touchstones from high-, low- and middle-brow fare these days. It’s freeing: Harold Bloom’s Western canon is out, and eclecticism is in. 

Eclecticism is in the very nature of things in “The Universe Is a House Party,” from Life on Mars:

The universe is expanding. Look: postcards
And panties, bottles with lipstick on the rim, 

Orphan socks and napkins dried into knots.
Quickly, wordlessly, all of it whisked into file

With radio waves from a generation ago
Drifting to the edge of what doesn’t end,

 Like the air inside a balloon.

The poem plays with scientific misconceptions and imprecisions. In a recent New Yorker article, Alec Wilkinson notes that people used to think sound waves persisted forever. One inventor thought “that with a microphone that was sufficiently sensitive he could hear Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount,” Wilkinson writes. Smith inverts the well-known analogy, comparing the expanding universe to the surface of an inflating balloon. Even so, her iteration is imperfect: the “balloon” doesn’t have an inside. Its two-dimensional surface is supposed to represent three-dimensional space: Smith’s poem moves from error (preserved sound waves) to oxymoron (“the edge of what doesn’t end”) to paradox (the inside of a flat surface). In poems like this, Smith seems to be slyly, deliberately undermining her own attempts to grapple with the universe as a whole.

Just as she circles back, again and again, to speculate about death and the afterlife, she itches to nail down the nature of the universe -- a risky and ambitious endeavor to undertake in a physics lab, to say nothing of a book of poetry. She comes by the urge naturally. Of her father’s work on the Hubble telescope, Smith writes, “My father spent whole seasons/Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.”

But the initial results of his labor were disappointing:
The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is--

 So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

There’s that edge again. Of course, there may not be an edge; even if there is, we certainly haven’t seen it (though the telescope helps us see exponentially farther than ever before). Her poem ends with a wish, expressed in the past tense as though to give it more force, that we had come to some definitive understanding of the cosmos, and of ourselves.

Smith’s books function like a kind of confessional for humankind, resounding at once with the echoes of our worst deeds and our collective striving to forgive them. She invites a great reckoning in “The Universe as Primal Scream,” which begins with her upstairs neighbor’s small children shrieking in play, their voices “high, shrill and metallic.” She writes,

            Perhaps, if they hit
The magic decibel, the whole building
Will lift-off, and we’ll ride to glory
Like Elijah. If this is it--if this is what
Their cries are cocked toward--let the sky
Pass from blue, to red, to molten gold,
To black. Let the heaven we inherit approach.

There is an exhilaration in Smith’s fantastical jaunts that contrasts pleasantly with her quieter, more sober reflections. Some poems rocket to Mars, and others content themselves with the more mundane mysteries of life on earth. In Smith’s work, which encompasses so much, there’s plenty of room for both.

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Hannah Dentinger is rediscovering the Minnesotan cultural scene after a period of exile elsewhere in the Midwest. She writes about art and literature. 

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