Such Color: New and Selected Poems by Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press. 2021. Paperback. 240 pp. $26.
Color is, all at once, a scientific phenomenon of light, a glorious sensory delight, and a racially associated descriptor. It’s a fitting motif, then, for former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s 2021 book of poems, Such Color–a volume that showcases Smith’s fitness with multivalence. Throughout this book of new and selected poems, Smith provides a career-long sampler from her collections The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), the Pulitzer-Prize winning Life on Mars (2011), and Wade in the Water (2018), as well as Riot, a set of new poems. The synopsis of Such Color describes Smith’s project as “an increasingly audacious commitment to exploring the immense mysteries and conundrums of human existence,” and the sweep of her concerns range from the individual to the cosmic–from the appetite of the body to social injustice to questions of the afterlife. Smith has that rare gift of imagination which is capable of–indeed, lends itself to–serious contemplation. Consideration of what it means to be mortal has rarely been so clever, so far-reaching, or so full of play.
This playfulness is immediately apparent in Smith’s use of form. She is adept with traditional forms such as the sonnet and the ghazal, but she also coins her own. Her poem “The Elephant in the Poem” (199), for example, begins with the New York Times article “365 Elephants Died Suddenly. The Cause is a Mystery” and erases the word “elephants.” This open form not only asks the reader to mentally fill in the blanks to co-create an ominous reality along with Smith, but requires that they consider their own biases as they supply what’s missing:
Males and females, young and old,
all seem equally affected.
Many still consider the country
a safe haven for ______.
At this point the deaths
do not constitute a crisis. (199)
Smith shines in her longform poems. In these, seemingly unrelated ideas live in different sections of the poem and achieve an alchemic magic when, in their placement together, they form unexpected connections. When Smith was working on her collection Life on Mars, her father died unexpectedly; the central images of her collection, accordingly, took an elegiac turn. As she says, “[S]pace became a really different kind of place, a more private, more real place, when elegy became a mode that I began writing in…suddenly this backdrop of this unknowable distance seemed like a really helpful place to be in–thinking about questions of loss, thinking about the afterlife, thinking about whatever it is that we might return to when we leave here.” Her poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” (97) which appeared in Life on Mars, is an invitation into these questions through the image of outer space. Smith begins with offering different metaphors for space, among them “[a] cosmic mother watching through a spray of stars,/Mouthing yes, yes as we toddle toward the light” and “a library in a rural community.” Then, we move to an imagined encounter with Charlton Heston, the filming of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and a memory of Smith’s own father, who worked on the Hubble Telescope. This myriad of perspectives unmoors us from the gravity of a traditionally straightforward poem, enabling us to consider all kinds of encounters, living and dead, as encompassed in the universe’s wide sweep.
“Watershed,” too, makes meaning out of juxtaposition. The poem uses text from survivors of near-death experiences as well as from an article about the legacy of DuPont’s chemical pollution in West Virginia. At face value, these do not seem like subjects with any degree of overlap. But the result of their melding is a stunning meditation on the spiritual dimensions of environmental destruction.
Smith takes the ordinary –news articles, rural libraries–and sets it into verse, rendering it something holy in the process. This is not only a poetic device, but something of a metaphysical statement: Smith presents us with a vision of a world in Such Color in which everything is shot through with transcendence. In several of her poems from The Body’s Question, Smith retitles the gospels: instead of “The Gospel of Mark,” we have “Gospel: Manuel”; instead of John, we have Juan. This small conceit borrows from traditionally religious language, conferring dignity on the migrants who serve as the poems’ speakers. Similarly, “Beatific” begins with the sight of a comically slow runner holding up traffic: “I saw him bob across the intersection,/Squat legs bowed in black sweatpants.” But the poem quickly shifts into a messianic register, imagining “A voice in our idling engines, calling him/Lithe, Swift, Prince of Creation.” Along with the speaker of the poem, we’re thrown and chastened by the eruption of the holy in what was once a mere annoyance.
In Such Color, one of the most interesting through-lines is how Smith uses her poetry to confer dignity onto victims of atrocities. In The Body’s Question, Duende, and Life on Mars, Smith often adopts the persona of the victim in question. These poems illustrate some of Smith’s most innovative formal work, such as a section in the poem “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected” that is composed of imagined postcard messages sent from victims of police brutality to their killers. However, as imaginative, wide-ranging, and empathetic as these poems are, they invite ethical questions about who, if anyone, is allowed to speak on behalf of another, especially for the dead. Consequently, some readers may experience discomfort with Smith’s frequent use of persona.
However, Smith’s technique changes in Wade in the Water. Her longform poem “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All about It” is taken directly from Civil War-era letters of African Americans. The poem preserves their words, syntax, and spelling, adding only line breaks. As Smith puts it, “Once I began reading these texts, it became clear to me that the voices in question should command all of the space within my poem” (216). This poem humanizes those it represents in a more profound way than Smith’s persona poems do. The poems recount war experiences, plead with Lincoln for the release of sons from the army, and submit their claims to post-war pensions. The unvarnished quality of the voices in the poem humanizes the speakers and acts as a salient reminder of the letter writers’ hard-earned literacy. The section in which the speakers of the poem request their pensions includes stories of several former soldiers being misidentified and willfully renamed, complicating their efforts to receive the pensions to which they are entitled. This not only illuminates the institutional role played in African American loss of identity, but also brings Smith’s project of naming her speakers, and letting them use their own voices, into sharp relief.
Smith’s power in addressing injustice, though, comes not through righteous indignation but curiosity and new vision. As Smith puts it elsewhere, “a good poem isn’t going to be the result of the certainty that drives emotions like anger and outrage. If I know I’m right, and they are wrong, my poem is going to be a tract. But if I can say, what are the weird spaces that are under-imagined?…That’s where something really, I think, interesting starts to happen.” There’s a section of Smith’s poem “The Nobodies” that expresses a desire to lift up the disenfranchised:
If, at the final trumpet
Oil magnates will kiss the ankles
Of earth-caked girls who traipse
Along the highway’s edge,
Hugging the mountain
When trucks barrel past – (91)
Smith, Beatitude-like, imagines a world where the poor in spirit might receive lavish blessing. But, tellingly, this stanza is one in a series of clauses beginning with “if.” The form of the poem itself makes us hold our breath, leaving us hanging for a “then” that never comes. It’s in this hypothetical space, in which a reversal of fortunes for the unfortunate is possible but not guaranteed, in which everything we take for granted is mysterious underneath, that Smith thrives. She evokes those spaces with such color.
Veronica Toth is a PhD student at Baylor University. Her research interests include relational structures and gender theory, particularly in the 19th century novel, religion and literature, and contemporary female poetry. Her creative nonfiction and poetry has appeared in Rock & Sling, Relief, Windhover, and online at The Other Journal.
Tracy K. Smith, interview by Eleanor Wachtel, CBC Radio, May 29, 2016. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/writersandcompany/pulitzer-prize-winning-poet-tracy-k-smith-ponders-life-death-and-outer-space-in-her-memoir-ordinary-light-1.3597520. ↑
Tracy K. Smith, interview by Krista Tippett, On Being, November 1, 2018. https://onbeing.org/programs/tracy-k-smith-love-is-a-language-few-practice-but-all-or-near-all-speak-nov2018/. ↑