In her most recent collection, “Wade in the Water,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith presents a clear-eyed portrait of the present, reconsiders the past and offers love as an ethical response to injustice.
A Pulitzer Prize recipient, Smith writes with political force and lyrical intimacy about current events: environmental destruction, anti-immigrant violence, the refugee crisis. She boldly calls out “Those awful, awful men. The ones/Whose wealth is a kind of filth.”
In addition, she mines historical documents to add marginalized voices to the national story. In her series “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All about It,” she presents the letters of black Union soldiers and their family members. A mother begs Abraham Lincoln to release her son from duty; a father promises his children he will liberate them (not “steal” them, as their owner claims); and dozens of soldiers plead for their pensions, which they are denied because of the challenges of establishing an identity after slavery: “I/was a soldier of the United States./He told me it did not make any difference.”
She leaves these voices — mistakes and all — intact, while in her series “The Greatest Personal Privation” she manipulates letters from slave owners. Thus she uses their own words to condemn them for destroying families:
“The whole country/Will not come back/From the sale of parent/And child.”
She also performs an erasure on the Declaration of Independence, surfacing a phrase that could describe the Middle Passage: “Circumstances of our emigration/and settlement here./— taken Captive/on the high Seas.” In this act, Smith argues that slavery is embedded in America’s founding, not an aberration dispatched of during the Civil War.
As Smith traverses time and tragedy, she returns to the idea that love is a radical and transformative force, one with a political and public function. She writes: “Love is a language/Few practice, but all, or near all speak.” To practice love means forging compassion across difference. She writes of a refugee, “Let me imagine/You are my mother in Montgomery,/Alabama … Let me love you by loving her.”
In this book, love is the historical through line from enslaved people’s resistance to contemporary activism. She writes, “I love you in the rusted iron/Chains someone was made/To drag until love let them be/ Unclasped.” She sees that same liberatory love in the now famous photograph by Jonathan Bachman of Black Lives Matter activist Ieshia Evans in a diaphanous sundress offering herself for arrest in July 2016 in Baton Rouge, La.: “Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,/Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.”
Elizabeth Hoover is a writer and poet in Milwaukee.
Wade in the Water
By: Tracy K. Smith.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 83 pages, $24.
Event: Talk of the Stacks, 7 p.m. May 16, Central Library, Nicollet Mall.