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Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water

WADE IN THE WATER, Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 2019, 96 pages, $16 paper, www.graywolfpress.org.

For my last poet in #nationalpoetrymonth, this book is too perfect. Here’s Graywolf Press’s description:

In Wade in the Water, Pulitzer Prize winner 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. Here, private utterance becomes part of a larger choral arrangement as the collection includes erasures of the Declaration of Independence and correspondence between slave owners, a found poem composed 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.
https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/wade-water

I lack words enough to describe this book. “Choral arrangement” helps (beginning with the gospel title). “Luminous” seems overused, but I knew when I found the audio version of Wade in the Water, that I would have to try to write about it. It captures both transcendence and terror, life itself. “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I will Tell You All About It,” one title promises us, and Smith delivers. I would love to know more about the process of writing these poems, or “creating” them, as some are erasures and others, collages of voices of slaves, and of Black Civil War soldiers and veterans. Smith brings it all to the page, and hearing her read this book aloud made my day.

Smith’s first book Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize; she served as U. S. Poet Laureate from 2017-2019. She is a must-read.

This is the first poem in the book, far more conventional than poems later in the collection, but easier for me to reproduce for you. (Find more poems at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/tracy-k-smith#tab-poems.)

Garden of Eden

What a profound longing

I feel, just this very instant,

For the Garden of Eden

On Montague Street

Where I seldom shopped,

Usually only after therapy

Elbow sore at the crook

From a handbasket filled

To capacity. The glossy pastries!

Pomegranate, persimmon, quince!

Once, a bag of black beluga

Lentils spilt a trail behind me

While I labored to find

A tea they refused to carry.

It was Brooklyn. My thirties.

Everyone I knew was living

The same desolate luxury,

Each ashamed of the same things:

Innocence and privacy. I’d lug

Home the paper bags, doing

Bank-balance math and counting days.

I’d squint into it, or close my eyes

And let it slam me in the face—

The known sun setting

On the dawning century.

—Tracy K. Smith

I found numerous recordings on the web, and felt this one–her thoughts on the history and witness of Black poetry, and a tribute to Amanda Gorman–was the perfect one to share.

Tomas Tranströmer (1931-2015)

THE HALF-FINISHED HEAVEN: SELECTED POEMS, Tomas Tranströmer. Trans. Robert Bly. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401, 2001, 2017, 118 pages, $16 paper, https://www.graywolfpress.org/.

Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, and his influence is pervasive. But he is not merely a serious and learned poet, he is also wry and funny and readable. In his 2017 introduction, Robert Bly writes of Tranströmer:

“…he was a genius–for things in human communication that are half-sensed, half-understood, only partially risen into consciousness, liable, like a fish, to disappear into the lake a moment later. If you are addicted to certainty, there’s no point in going toward his poems–they’ll just lead you into islands that disappear a moment later.” (xxiv)

I purchased my copy of this expanded edition of his selected poems when I was in San Francisco last fall, at City Lights Booksellers. I’ve wrestled with what to include here, and have decided on one of the longer poems.

Out in the Open 

I.

Late autumn labyrinth.
At the entry to the woods a thrown-away bottle.
Go in. Woods are silent abandoned houses this time of year.
Just a few sounds now: as if someone were moving twigs around carefully with pincers
or as if an iron hinge were whining feebly inside a thick trunk.
Frost has breathed on the mushrooms and they have shriveled up.
They look like objects and clothing left behind by people who’ve disappeared.
It will be dark soon. The thing to do now is to get out
and find the landmarks again: the rusty machine out in the field
and the house on the other side of the lake, a reddish square intense as a bouillon cube.

II.

A letter from America drove me out again, started me walking
through the luminous June night in the empty suburban streets
among newborn districts without memories, cool as blueprints.

Letter in my pocket. Half-mad, lost walking, it is a kind of prayer.
Over there evil and good actually have faces.
For the most part with us it’s a fight between roots, numbers, shades of light.

The people who run death’s errands for him don’t shy from daylight.
They rule from glass offices. They mill about in the bright sun.
They lean forward over a desk, and throw a look to the side.

Far off I found myself standing in front of the new buildings.
Many windows flowed together there into a single window.
In it the luminous night sky was caught, and the walking trees.
It was a mirrorlike lake with no waves, turned on edge in the summer night.

Violence seemed unreal
for a few moments.

III.

Sun burning. The plane comes in low
throwing a shadow shaped like a giant cross that rushes over the ground.
A man is sitting the the field poking at something.
The shadow arrives.
For a fraction of a second he is right in the center of the cross.

I have seen the cross hanging in the cool church vaults.
At times it resembles a split-second snapshot of something
moving at tremendous speed.