• Spencer Soule

Book Review: Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith

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Book Review of Wade in the Water


Tracy K. Smith

Greywolf Press






Reviewed by: Spencer Soule

Turning the final page of Wade in the Water (Greywolf Press, 2018), the latest book by two-term Poet Laureate of the United States Tracy K. Smith, it is easy to see how she earned such honors. Smith's previous collections of poetry, The Body's Question, and Duende received high praise for their poignant and technically impressive discussions of race and identity in America, and her collection Life on Mars earned the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2011. It speaks to Smith's incredible versatility that she should follow Life on Mars — a collection of poems examining humanity through the lens of futurism — with Wade in the Water, an empathetic and often heartbreaking examination of America's racially divided past. Indeed, time plays a significant role in Wade in the Water as Smith explores the lives of African American's and the injustices incurred against them by an apathetic and reluctant white government during the civil war and reconstruction periods. Using letters and statements of African American's living through this most turbulent chapter of American history, Smith crafts erasure poems that speak as ghosts out of the past: "for instant look & see/that we never was freed yet/Run Right out of Slavery/In to Soldiery & we/hadent nothing atall..." Smith's meticulously crafted erasures give life to voices too long left unheard by the passage of time and by our own misguided desire to forget.

In "Declaration," an erasure poem assembled from selections of the Declaration of Independence, Smith awakens readers with a sharp list of grievances and appeals for redress: "We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. —taken Captive on the high Seas to bear—" These examinations of America's past only grow in urgency as Smith transitions to poems based around America's current woes, coupled with her sense of belonging as a modern African American woman. In "The United States Welcomes You," Smith adopts an interrogative persona that seems to embody everything wrong with America's current approach to immigration: "Why and by whose power were you sent? / What do you see that you may wish to steal?" But Smith is not pessimistic. Amid such grand themes, Wade in the Water offers plenty of simple, beautiful images connecting American life to the universal human experience. Later in the collection, Smith provides a potential cure to isolationist nationalism with elegant imagery: "Until I can understand why you / Fled ... let me imagine / you are my mother in Montgomery / Alabama, walking to campus —"

Wade in the Water is Tracy K. Smith's invitation for us to plumb the depths of our American consciousness, the ugly and beautiful, to see if we can't find those universal qualities that tie humanity together.


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