Poet Tracy K. Smith achieved a breakthrough in 2011 with "Life on Mars," a collection that won the Pulitzer Prize. As the title suggests, "Life on Mars" embraced an extraterrestrial theme, drawing on inspiration as varied as science fiction and the music of David Bowie to suggest that in the vast reaches of the cosmos, humanity might be the strangest creation of all. The book was also a homage to Smith’s father, a scientist who worked on the Hubble telescope. In one of the book’s best poems, “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” Smith reflected on the Hubble’s early technical problems, glitches that were ultimately resolved:
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 all there is –
So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.
It’s lovely if stark imagery, pointing to the struggle for clarity that informs both science and poetry. That breathtaking last line underscores another conundrum of intellectual ambition – that approaching the threshold of one mystery inevitably reveals another.
Poems like that are why Smith’s readers keep coming back for more. Since her Pulitzer, Smith’s prominence has steadily grown, and last year, she was named poet laureate of the United States.
Wade in the Water, Smith’s new collection, is her first book since taking on her official role. But even before her appointment, as her latest work makes clear, Smith was already being called into service as a public poet, recruited to craft verse for specific cultural or civic events. One poem in the collection originated as part of a commencement ceremony, another to close out a conference on “faith-based approaches to forced migration.” A couple of them accompanied art exhibits, and two others were commissioned by public radio in response to news events.
Poetry draws on a long tradition of such commemorative verse, but there’s always a risk that the result will be rigid and rhetorical, sounding like a proclamation, not an intimate voice. That problem crops up in “Refuge,” an obviously well-meaning poem about international refugees:
Your sister in a camp in Turkey,
Sixteen, deserving of everything:
Let her be my daughter, who has
Curled her neat hands into fists,
Insisting nothing is fair and I
Have never loved her....
Like a number of other poems in "Wade in the Water," which is Smith’s most overtly political collection, “Refuge” has a raspy and hortatory air, suggesting a communiqué rather than a private reflection.
“Declarations,” one of the book’s better efforts, proves more subtle. It’s an erasure poem – a piece of verse in which parts of a “found” text are removed so that the remaining fragments can be seen and heard at a different slant. True to its title, “Declaration” borrows the wording of the Declaration of Independence, distilling it to a lattice of terms, including “harass,” and “oppression,” that are frequently used in current controversies about justice and equality – so much so that we tend to tune them out. “Declaration” refreshes the sense of what these words actually mean, cleverly placing radical activism rests at the core of democratic experience.
Several other poems in "Wade in the Water" use found texts, not all of them successfully so. “Watershed” draws on a New York Times story about environmental degradation as well as excerpts from online narratives from those who have survived near-death experiences. It’s eclectic to the point of strain and a reminder that not all or even most stretches of quoted prose can easily be refashioned into a poem that truly sings. There’s just not much music in “concentration in drinking water 3 x international safety limit.”
"Wade in the Water" includes notes at the back to help explain what many of the poems are about. One feels a small sense of defeat at needing such a tutorial to grasp a poem, which perhaps ideally should be a self-contained thing. It’s a little like having to lean on a museum’s gallery flyer to fathom an abstract art installation.
Much of the subject matter of "Wade in the Water" takes its inspiration from the headlines, which means it’s generally bleak. “In Your Condition,” Smith’s poem about pregnancy and motherhood, strikes a more hopeful and humorous note, chronicling the complications, hormonal and otherwise, of carrying a child:
The baby kept me queasy, hungry, made my dress hike up
Though I was only eight weeks in. At a tavern my last night,
I had to stand outside to breathe. I ordered bottle after bottle Of water, though the red wine shimmered like nectar
Flying home, I snuck a wedge of brie, and wept
Through a movie starring Angelina Jolie.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.