A new poetry collection by Tracy K. Smith, the Poet Laureate of the United States, in which she ties America’s contemporary moment both to our nation’s fraught founding history and to a sense of the spirit, the everlasting.
What I have always liked about Smith’s poetry is her interest in other people’s lives. The lone self has been the sacred cow of lyric poetry since the ancient Greeks, and there’s no way to sever that link permanently, but a vacation now and then from self-absorption to look around and see what the rest of the human race has been up to can do wonders to one’s poetry ... The poems in Wade in the Water are full of memorable images nimbly put together by Smith’s exquisite sense of timing and her feel for the kind of language appropriate to the poem ... Wade in the Water is not only a political book. It asks how an artist might navigate the political and the personal, and the collection’s real strength lies in its many marvelous poems that are more private.
Can poetry contribute to the national dialogue in ways that both challenge and uplift? Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water demonstrates that the answer is yes ... [Smith] shows tremendous range in these rich, humane poems as she shifts from lyricism to direct speech, from meditative passages to wry humor ... Smith brings great intelligence and sensitivity to her poems, leading readers deeper into other people’s stories — and ultimately into their own humanity.
Smith’s new book is scorching in both its steady cognizance of America’s original racial sins — open wounds that have had insectlike eggs repeatedly laid in them — and apprehension about history’s direction ... Wade in the Water is pinned together by a suite of found poems that employ near-verbatim the letters and statements of African-American Civil War veterans and their families. These historical poems have a homely, unvarnished sort of grace ... If this new book lacks some of the range and depth and allusiveness of that earlier book, well, she has battened down certain hatches.