Dr. Fields shares a trio of poems by Tracy K. Smith, the Poet Laureate of the United States.
I found the poetry of Tracy K. Smith to be deeply powerful, giving voice to those who also speak through our next book selection, The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen.
Her latest collection is, Wade in the Water which is immersed in American history and that of African Americans in the Civil War.
She was recently featured in a New York Times Magazine article by Ruth Franklin, who says of the poet, “She also channels the past in “erasure poems,” a technique in which a poet chooses a text and strategically deletes most of it, leaving behind words that may be framed into a new work. For one, titled “Declaration,” Smith chose the Declaration of independence as her primary source.”
By Tracy K. Smith
sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people.
He has plundered our—
destroyed the lives of our—
taking away our—
abolishing our most valuable—
and altering fundamentally the Forms of our—
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for
Redress in the most humble terms:
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.
We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration
and settlement here.
on the high Seas
A central poem of Wade in the Water, is “I WILL TEll YOU THE TRUTH ABOUT THIS, I WILL TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT” of which Smith said,
”All I really did was listen to the letters that were out there, this Civil War correspondence between black soldiers and their families, or letters by black veterans or descendants of deceased veterans. Those voices felt so current, as though they were almost whispering from yesterday. I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything other than saying, let’s just get these voices together, and maybe somebody else will want to hear them in the same way. There’s one moment where the father of a soldier says, “I’m willing to sacrifice my son in the cause of Freedom and Humanity” – he capitalizes those nouns. I’m reading it and thinking, do we really understand: If you were enslaved, freedom and humanity are not these abstractions.”
Here is Tracy reading an excerpt from “I WILL TELL YOU THE TRUTH ABOUT THIS, I WILL TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT”:
[If you cannot play the video, you can listen to it here.]
In an interview conducted by the Washington Square Review’s Interview Co-Editor Eleanor Wright, Smith discusses her poem “The United States Welcomes You” saying
“Sometimes, as in the case of “The United States Welcomes You”, a persona is a last resort. In early drafts of that poem, I was struggling with the feeling that I had too much cherishing for the poem’s initial speaker, which I had imagined as a black man with his hands in the air, “arms raised, eyes wide.” So I inverted the poem, and wrote from the perspective of someone apprehending him. I think the title, which came after I’d finished the poem, enlarged the initial scope of the poem.”
The United States Welcomes You
By Tracy K. Smith
Why and by whose power were you sent?
What do you see that you may wish to steal?
Why all this dancing? Why do your dark bodies
Drink up the light? What are you demanding
That we feel? Have you stolen something? Then
What is that leaping in your chest? What is
The nature of your mission? Do you seek
To offer a confession? Have you anything to do
With others brought by us to harm? Then
Why are you afraid? And why do you invade
Our night, hands raised, eyes wide, and mute
As ghosts? Is there something you wish to confess?
Is this some enigmatic type of test? What if we
Fail? How and to whom do we address our appeal?
We will conclude our celebration of National Poetry Month on Monday. Next up, the historical novel,
The Secrets of Mary Bowser.
Hope you will pick up your copy of the book today.
We will be talking with author Lois Leveen
Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.