Friday, December 1, 2017

Tracy K. Smith's Ordinary Light, Extra-ordinary Poems

Regularly these days, if I'm reading while I'm out somewhere, no post-it notes or notebook handy when I come across a passage that I want to come back to later, I'll snap a photo of it.  Just as regularly, once I've snapped the photo, I will forget the passage until much, much later when I'm finally sorting out the overflowing virtual album.

What a delight then, to come across these passages in the middle of that task (and I'll confess to having been waylaid often, to having taken long detours thanks to a second encounter with a thought-provoking or resonant or moving passage). Such was the case earlier this week when I found, for the second time, these words from Tracy K. Smith's memoir, Ordinary Light, written about her first encounter with Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man: "Reading the novel, I'd understood something I hadn't ever considered: listening to a protagonist is easier than listening to a person speaking in the flesh, even if the two might be saying the exact same thing. The protagonist invites you into such an intimate proximity, asking only to be heard, and then proceeds to say a thing like, 'I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility.' If someone said that to my face, my esophagus would tighten, my temples would flush, and my heartbeat would thump louder in my ears. I'd retreat, too ashamed and too guilty to stand there listening to what the world had insisted, again and again, upon doing to a person with skin hued like my own. And yet the voice on the page, saying these very things, entered me differently. My eyes raced across the lines, chasing down every sentence. It was more than simply loving to read, more than simply loving a good story. It was about realizing I was capable of opening my eyes and ears in such a way as to accept the truth of what I was reading and admit the pain."

Smith's memoir overall is wonderful and allowed me to hear some uncomfortable truths about racism from a perspective that it's hard to imagine gaining outside the covers of a book. But it also offers many aper├žus that I could relate to, directly, from my own experience.  When she speaks of her older brother, of the "updated version of the self he had become immediately upon his arrival to campus," she questions whether becoming this new self "had required [him] to let go of a big part of the person he'd always been." She goes on to speculate, though, that "perhaps it was simply a matter of having encountered bits and pieces of himself he'd never before taken stock of and deciding to give them a little extra space." I'm not sure why this resonated so distinctly with me, but it's not only because of coming-of-age memories. Most of my "bit and pieces" I've "taken stock of," by now, over my 64 years, but I think there's still room "to give them a little extra space," and I found her phrasing a felicitous validation of that impulse. . .

Before I read Smith's memoir -- which I must suggest makes an excellent contrapuntal and complementary companion to Ta-Nehisi Coates The Beautiful Struggle -- I'd read Duende, her second collection of poems, the first I could find available at the library after I read of her appointment as the U.S. poet laureate. (This announcement, I must tell you, buoyed my spirits, went some way to reminding me that there's still much good south of the border, despite the current political situation, and, quirky as this may sound, reconciled me to travelling to Portland with my husband in September.) Unfortunately, the book was in high demand at the time, and I couldn't extend my time with it, so that although I was able to read my way through it, to glean impressions, I didn't manage to take any notes nor copy out any poems.

I did copy a few lines from the Pulitzer-winning Life on Mars:

These ones, for example, from "The Weather in Space":

"Is God being or pure force? The wind
Or what commands it? When our lives slow
And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls
In our laps like a gangly doll. When the storm
Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing
After all we're certain to lose, so alive --
Faces radiant with panic."

And these, from "The Largeness We Can't See":

"And all we live blind to

Leans its deathless heft to our ears
                                       and sings."

Later, in that same poem:

"We hurry from door to door in a downpour
Of days."

That last, the prosody is brilliant, imho, and she does that kind of thing so often (although not distractingly so) -- the alliteration and rhythm and rhyme. She works wonders with sound and image, so that the (considerable) intellectual and often political challenge her writing poses is eased and rewarded by/with aesthetic delights.

See for yourself at the Tracy K. Smith page on the Poetry Foundation website.

Some of you will already have known of Smith's work, will have read it and can perhaps recommend favourites; some of you, I know, don't read poetry at all; some might be very interested in her memoir as a piece of late-20th/early 21st-century cultural history. And whether you know or have read Smith's work or read poetry at all, I wonder what you think of the notion of a Poet Laureate, of how that poet represents a nation, whether that's a realistic notion in these times. Does your country have such a poet, and do you know who that is? Have you read any of their work? Time to chat. . . 


  1. So much to say about this, but no time.

    Tracy K. Smith is a treasure. My favorite poem is My God, It's Full of Stars. I particularly love these lines:

    "…I want to be
    One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
    Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
    And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
    Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
    So that I might be sitting now beside my father
    As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
    For the first time in the winter of 1959."

    I think a Poet Laureate is a light in the darkness.

    1. I love this too, K, and thank you for taking time to copy it out. . .

  2. Beautiful poems.
    "Poets are wonder in a world"-says one of our poets
    We had a "Poet Laureate"title centuries ago,but not any more,as far as I know.
    I assume there are titles like that still in US,UK and Canada
    (Toronto)-it really represent hope and light in a world like this,as Katherine says
    It would be nice to know if there are some other countries with the title as well
    I read poetry from time to time but not as much as years ago

    1. Yes, the UK, Canada, and the U.S. all have poets laureate -- ours currently is George Elliot Clarke. . .
      I need to see if I can find some Croatian poetry in translation. I know that yours is a rich literature.