Tracy K. Smith sees in vivid color. Her moody, companionable poems are the closest one can get to the palette of painter Richard Diebenkorn in verse. Reading through her new book, Such Color, one trips over richness all across the spectrum: golds and blues, the scissoring red of a cigarette cherry at night. Sometimes the shades aren’t described, but emerge through a blurring of the senses, like when she writes of eating “cotton candy and roast corn.” Who can’t taste that buttery yellow, those fizzy pastels? In other moments, color arrives on the page with the solidity of compound nouns: soldiers with their faces painted “mud green.” Finally, most spectacularly, color can ride into a Smith poem on the levitational uplift of a metaphor. “The woman in a blouse / the color of daylight / Motions to her daughter not to slouch,” begins “Mangoes.” Should she wish to, one day, Smith will write fiction of a very high order. In the meantime, the night calls to her too. “After dark,” she writes, “stars glisten like ice.”
The interplay between what the poet can see and what she feels—between light and color and their shadows—has formed an exquisite, always-shifting tension in Smith’s work. Her poems are never, ever static. Moving from dark to light, grief into joy, these contrasts form the graceful swiveling energy of Smith’s verse, which is on full display in Such Color, a book of new and selected poems spanning nearly 20 years. Open it at random and you will encounter a poet preternaturally adept at describing states of change—like love, and rapture—wherein we feel, as bodies, pleasantly operated on by a larger force: the way joy overcomes one like a blush, or a vibration, before one can name or state its source. You don’t read a Smith poem; you fall into it, surrendering, like an embrace, as in the best poems of Lucille Clifton.
This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
The magic of the great Baltimore poet’s work plays in the background of Smith’s words like a dance hit on a tinny radio. Clifton’s big spirit is always there, enlivening, nudging Smith’s easy, beautiful instinct to veer toward tenderness. Only Smith orchestrates her own submission to possibility, to risk, and to love outside the tonal dexterities of a fixed voice. Across her first four books of poems, she addresses the reader in a profound variety of speakers, from migrants and mothers to her own self as a little girl, watching her father eat. She even has a poem stitched together from the voices of people who wrote letters to Abraham Lincoln.
In the summer of 2020, Smith and I coedited There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love, an anthology of writing in response to the continued flagrant disregard for Black life. Working with her, I saw up close her curatorial genius for creating a space from many voices. Reading Such Color, I realize how deeply that gift runs through her. This many-sidedness gives Smith’s books a polyphonic musicality. They feel like gatherings of people, of ancestors, of spirits. They read, in this best sense, theatrically, as if the poems weren’t made but are spoken from voices that step in and out of their moment onstage. In this way, Smith was an inspired choice for poet laureate of the United States. She served two terms, back-to-back, from 2017 to 2019. She not only contains multitudes, she hears them too. “This is why I love poems,” Smith wrote in the introduction to American Journal, the anthology she assembled during her tenure. “They require me to sit still, listen deeply, and imagine putting myself in someone else’s unfamiliar shoes.”
A better title for that book might have been Journal of the Americas, for in Smith’s work one doesn’t only hear the echoes of Whitman and Grimké and all the great oversouls of U.S. poetry. Her America reaches across borders and creates a literary space that stretches from Canada down to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. The Body’s Question and Duende, her first two books, published in the aughts, read like works written under the spell of Latin American fiction. Fabulist, warm, abstract in moments, but always embodied, the poems of these years take the reader on a journey into outsidership. Smith’s lines trip percussively into places like this one, brought vividly to life in “Serenade”:
City of Restless Vendors, of Steep Embankments,
Of Padlocks and Bad Plumbing:
You have carried on this whole night
In the clatter of footsteps, in the private cadence of voices
And the silhouettes from which the voices spring.
Later, in “Fire Escape Fantasy,” she maps out a similar place, where
There are small men
Whose small fists rattle, spilling dice
Onto the pavement like teeth, so that our night
Is a kind of agitated music. That’s why women
Wear worry and cover their heads, let their words
Drop like shot birds from the higher windows.
Every night here one of us is sliced open.
For all her paint-chip specificity with color, it is here—in the arena of sound—that Smith becomes the great poet. Her ear is always tuned to the story beneath the sound. “Into the Moonless Night” is a choral piece in the voice of abducted Ugandan teenagers. It calls as if to the gods, “Let us be them,” and just as a vision arises in one’s head as to who “them” is, it continues: “Let us be their captors. Let us be / The village they were dragged from, / The families murdered, the President / In stiff gabardine, cordoned by cameras / And glinting badges.” Smith’s commitment to empathy is total: she is not selectively choosing the worthy.
The range of sounds Smith will play with in order to achieve this stereophonic intimacy is astounding. In a poem called “The Nobodies,” which is prefaced by a quote from the fabulous Uruguayan journalist and poet Eduardo Galeano, she reduces her language to a symbolic solidity. She describes a tribe of overlooked people, their futures so abridged “it’s not the future their eyes see / But history,” and “they speak / A language of kicked stones.” These imagined anthropologies are like Borges’s stories: dense, strange, and yet she doesn’t use the skills she hones there for further mandarin states.
Instead, in Life on Mars, for which Smith won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, she gathers her many voices and projects them into outer space. Smith grew up in Northern California, and her father worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, so the journey is at once as wild as death, and as intimate as mourning. The book is an elegy written in a series of profound questions about matters so large, it seems we couldn’t even begin to imagine the answers. What is the weather in space? What is its sound? And yet, thanks to her father’s work, and that of people like him, we know the answers to these things. Her response to the latter question is so accurate you can feel rumbling distortions: “now audible, thrumming, / Marbled with static like grisly meat. A chorus of engines churns.”
Smith’s use of similes is so deft and pervasive, they create an impulse in the reader, a reflex to enter into a comparative state and compare unlike things. One begins to read the poems as an afterimage to a question so terrible it can’t be asked. In Life on Mars, that question surfaces out of the stardust of the poems like static, like an outline. What does one do when the void appears on Earth? More specifically, where do they go, our loved ones? “The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” ends with a memorable supposition:
Silence taunts: a dare. Everything that disappears
Disappears as if returning somewhere.
You can read Smith’s poems nearly continuously, ad infinitum, because they are so casual, so humble with the grandeur of their concerns. Her repetitions, even in a moment so profound as a father’s death, have the sibilant hush of someone talking to us, speaking low. Almost whispering. This register allows her to slide into wonder, to address the dead:
You stepped out of the body.
Unzipped it like a coat.
And will it drag you back
As flesh, voice, scent?
Smith turns these questions over—what is it, where do we go, and why—with such force they no longer become hers alone. In one of the most dazzling uses of associative logic across a book, Life on Mars sidles away from Smith’s own loss into the death (and torture) of others. (The poems were published in the aftermath of the disastrous U.S. occupation of Iraq.) In one of the later poems from that book, the dead send postcards to their assailants. In another, a friend tells the speaker dark matter is proof that what binds us together isn’t love at all.
The power of Smith’s belief in our most enlarged selves is reinforced by her willingness to regard and contemplate the example of the opposite. Juxtaposed with poems about abuse and torture, about estrangement and confusion, the soaring intimacies she describes in Life on Mars are ecstatic, restorative, terribly brief. “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me” is one of those poems. Broad lined, straightforward in its syntax, it tells the fact of love after death in terms that will lay you flat—from lovemaking to birth. “I lay sprawled like a big-game rug across the bed,” she writes. “Belly down, legs wishbone-wide. It was winter.” And then it wasn’t.
Time and again, Smith transforms the cruel, mysterious movements of life into formal expressions. After the bereavements and obliterations of Life on Mars, her poems grew thinner, leaner, and even proceeded from erasure. “The Greatest Personal Privation,” the major poem in her fourth collection, Wade in the Water, is an erasure poem that begins with the correspondence between “members of the Mary and Charles Colcock Jones family regarding the sale of slaves Patience, Porter, and their children, members of the Geechee and Gullah communities in Liberty County, Georgia.” Some of the sentences Smith produces in this manner—rubbing out certain words—tell a greater truth:
As I can see, the loss
Is great and increasing.
I know they have desired
We should not know
What was for our own good,
But we cannot be all the cause
Of all that has been done.
Smith often works in couplets to give grief and other strong feelings their awful majesty, their sense of barely attained control. Here, however, the couplets and elaborate syntax are a perfect form for the speaker’s rationalization and excuses. As Smith remarks in her notes, Charles Colcock Jones “contemplated supporting the abolition of slavery; he chose, instead, to work as a missionary and reformer in Liberty County, though he remained a slaveholder until his death in 1863.”
Out of the darkness this book spins, though, into light. What is known, and what is unknown, unknowable? Smith always asks us to weigh the unanswerable nature of these questions, the importance of still asking. Balancing the erasure in “The Greatest Personal Privation” is a superb found poem, “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You the Truth About It,” which she constructs from letters and statements of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, along with those of their spouses, their families, those they left behind. The diction is sparse, the syntax simple. The effects are devastating:
My boy was dead. He died directly
after getting down from the wagon.
Next morning I walked to Nicholasville.
I dug a grave and buried my child. I left
my family in the Meeting house—
where they still remain.
What happens when a poet makes her voice a vessel for such voices? Where does she go? How does she ever reassume the chiseled daguerreotype of the self in a poem? One of Smith’s powers is to include in that portrait, the one all poems accidentally make, the images of her ancestors, those who have come before her. She folds herself always into the collective, like a voice in a chorus. “Can you imagine what will sound from us,” she writes in “Ghazal,” “what we’ll rend and claim / When we find ourselves alone with all we’ve ever sought: our name?”
In the period during which the poems of Wade in the Water were written, the names of so many brutally murdered Black Americans of all genders began to stand for the spectacle of their death. For the injustice their deaths were part of, a long, terrible continuum that continues to this very hour. Those names in turn became part of the songs of protest, demanding justice.
In a final selection of poems from 2021, Smith drifts away from this use of names, using erasures—taking out words in some cases, forgoing her previous plenitude of color—to create a new kind of repetition, a new sort of chant. Black, however, remains. “Sometimes I feel / the Black in my heart / like a map / made of tar,” opens “Riot,” a poem that elaborates into call-and-response with her ancestors. “Can you hold my death / in your mind,” one asks. “I was taught to look, to be, / despite what’s done to me,” another voice replies. One does not have to ask who is speaking: they are all her.•