Wade in the Water
Shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize
Finalist for the Forward Prize for Best Collection
The extraordinary new poetry collection by Tracy K. Smith, the Poet Laureate of the United States
Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else
Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?
We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.
Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.
—from “Unrest in Baton Rouge”
In Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith boldly ties America’s contemporary moment both to our nation’s fraught founding history and to a sense of the spirit, the everlasting. These are poems of sliding scale: some capture a flicker of song or memory; some collage an array of documents and voices; and some push past the known world into the haunted, the holy. Smith’s signature voice—inquisitive, lyrical, and wry—turns over what it means to be a citizen, a mother, and an artist in a culture arbitrated by wealth, men, and violence. Here, private utterance becomes part of a larger choral arrangement as the collection widens to include erasures of The Declaration of Independence and the correspondence between slave owners, a found poem comprised of evidence of corporate pollution and accounts of near-death experiences, a sequence of letters written by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, and the survivors’ reports of recent immigrants and refugees. Wade in the Water is a potent and luminous book by one of America’s essential poets.
History is in a hurry," writes Smith in her first collection since the Pulitzer-winning Life on Mars, and these lyrical meditations on class, environmental threat, and America's bloody heritage prove that the current U.S. poet laureate is plenty capable of keeping up with that "ship forever setting sail." Readers familiar with Smith's work will feel at home in "this dark where the earth floats." Some poems inhabit a more boldly theological space than does previous work, yet Smith's sense of the numinous stays appealingly grounded, as when she describes the "everlasting self" as "Gathered, shed, spread, then/ Forgotten, reabsorbed. Like love/ From a lifetime ago, and mud/ A dog has tracked across the floor." Whether presenting a sardonic erasure of the Declaration of Independence or dramatizing the correspondence between black Civil War soldiers and their wives, Smith nimbly balances lyricism and direct speech. In "Annunciation," she boldly states, "I've turned old. I ache most/ To be confronted by the real,/ the pitiless, the bleak." But a wry playfulness leavens her weightier concerns, and she leaves a small window open on her private self: "Flying home, I snuck a wedge of brie, and wept/ Through a movie starring Angelina Jolie." Smith remains a master whose technical skill enhances her emotional facilities, one ever able to leave readers "feeling pierced suddenly/ By pillars of heavy light."