Wade in the Water finds Tracy K. Smith, our current U.S. poet laureate, entering into a new phase of attention. Where the poet’s previous books turned to global cultures or looked to the galaxies—with all of their transnational and metaphorical heft—to explore themes of loss, desire, and identity, in this collection Smith owns her displeasure with the world and captures the social and political unrest of the age. The poems protest the emotional mistreatment of women, the corporate dumping of toxic waste into natural waters, and the curious phenomenon of mansplaining: “He’ll grin watching you squint, deciphering / Rivers, borders, bridges arcing up from rock. He’ll recite / Its history. How one empire swallowed another. How one / Civilization lasted 3,000 years with no word for eternity.” Here, too, Smith makes the implicit argument that acts of political resistance and acts of social kindness, like coming to the aid of a neighbor, are also acts of holistic charity and love (“Is it strange to say love is a language / Few practice, but all, or near all speak?”). The poems in Wade in the Water are—in classic Smith fashion—gorgeously nuanced in music and in feeling and occasionally offbeat in their logic, as when the speaker is visited by two angels in “leather biker gear” or when God comes down from the hills in his jeep. Amid a book that includes, in documentary fashion, abridged letters by African American slaves during the Civil War as well as poems about the caprices of motherhood, Smith lands on the power of art and its ability to pierce us “suddenly / By pillars of heavy light” in poems such as “Wade in the Water,” “Theatrical Improvisation,” and “Realm of Shades” to return us to feelings of love, “uncannily, as though all of us must be / / Buried deep within each other.”
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2018.