Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith, Graywolf Press, 96 pp., $16.00
More than two centuries after the U.S. Constitution was conceptualized, drafted, and ratified, it’s no longer surprising or even iconoclastic to claim that the Founding Fathers’ vision of America was not, in fact, particularly inclusive. The government that James Madison argued in Federalist Paper No. 10 would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens” limited both “the public” and the “chosen body” that would represent it to landed, well-educated white men. The notion that anyone else might desire change—that anyone else might have grievances deserving of political attention—was laughable. “Depend upon it, sir,” John Adams declared in an oft-cited 1776 letter, “it is dangerous to open So fruitfull a Source of Controversy and Altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the Qualifications of Voters. There will be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State.”
This year’s midterm elections—in which over a hundred women were elected to Congress for the first time, including the first Native women and the first Muslim women—suggest that the fight for representation is an ongoing one. But present-day victories don’t diminish past injustices. What happened to the America the Founders dismissed? Where did their voices go? And how can we recover them?
These are the questions circulating in the background of Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith’s fourth collection of poetry and her first since her appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate in 2017. Published in April, in the wake of the poetry revival that grew out of the 2016 election, Wade in the Water seems, at first glance, a timely response to the political moment. “Our bodies run with ink dark blood,” Smith writes in “Unrest in Baton Rouge”—a line that gestures at the prevalence of modern-day racial violence, even as the poem responds to just one incident, the July 2016 shooting of Alton Sterling. But Smith also stretches beyond the immediate in these poems, into archives and across centuries, to unearth the narratives most history textbooks omit. The collection’s obsessive investment in historiography in addition to race and politics invites us to read it with a wider lens—even as we find in it a very contemporary kind of solace.
Wade in the Water, like Tracy K. Smith’s previous three books, is loosely organized into sections. The first and fourth bookend the collection with a mixture of allegorical and lyric pieces. From grocery shopping after therapy (“Garden of Eden”: “The glossy pastries! / Pomegranate, persimmon, quince!”), to seraphs dressed in biker gear (“The Angels”: “To think of how they smelled, what / Comes to mind is rum and gasoline”), to the idiosyncrasies of a young daughter (“4 ½”: “She’s hungry. She wants / ‘Bread, toasted, with no skin.’ And enough butter / To write her name in”), these poems range between the mundane and the spiritual, the lived and the imagined. But while critics often argue that, in Smith’s work, the personal is political (Hilton Als writes in the New Yorker that “it is still a bold move for black women to take on the erotic in writing,” as Smith frequently does), these poems, while charming, never quite reach—or even reach toward—the transformative power of the collection’s middle sections.
The best pieces in Wade in the Water instead transcend the bounds of the personal to fulfill a more sweeping ambition. Smith signals this shift with “Declaration,” an erasure poem drawn from the text of the Declaration of Independence, whose speaker is not an individual but a collective: the enslaved people whose forced labor undergirded the nation’s development and yielded the comforts of the men who cemented their bondage in law. By deleting words from the original Declaration, Smith reveals the ugly irony threading through one of the most canonical texts of American history:
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
Substituting the grievances of the Founding Fathers with the grievances of those they enslaved, Smith challenges the reductive, celebratory view that America was established when oppressed American colonists triumphed over oppressive British rule. As she excavates one story from the other, she reminds us that alternate narratives are already inscribed within the institutions we take for granted—just made invisible, eclipsed by the voices of others.
The collection’s centerpiece, the fourteen-page-long found poem “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All about It,” presents this message in its most developed and poignant form. Produced in 2011 to accompany a series of exhibitions at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the work draws on more than fifty letters and statements composed by black soldiers and their relatives during and after the war. “I Will Tell You the Truth about This” was thus not so much written as assembled: Smith explains in her notes to the collection that “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.” Rather than imagining the soldiers’ lives in her own words, she abridged, enjambed, and reorganized the primary documents. What results is a haunting succession of need:
Mr abarham lincon
I wont to knw sir if you please
whether I can have my son relest
from the arme he is all the subport
I have now his father is Dead
and his brother that wase all
the help I had he has bean wonded
twise he has not had nothing to send me yet
now I am old and my head is blossaming
for the grave and if you do I hope
the lord will bless you and me
The passage is difficult to read on multiple levels, from the misspelled words that the reader must sound out (“relest,” “subport,” “wonded”), to the desperation one feels suffusing the sparse lines, beginning with the innocence of the very address (“Mr abarham lincon”). At the same time, suspended in the blank space of the page, one becomes aware of the simple majesty of the letter-writer’s language, its rawness interrupted by moments of startling beauty—that head “blossaming / for the grave.”
Stanza after stanza progress in this way. Lincoln appears again as an addressee (“Mr president It is my Desire to be free… you will please / let me know if we are free and what i can do”), as does the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau (“I wish / to get my Kinde All with me and I will take it / as a Greate favor if you will help me to get them”). Other letters appeal to family. “Dear Wife,” one begins. “I want to See you and the Children very bad / I can get a house at any time I will Say the word / So you need not to fear as to that So come / wright on just as Soon as you get this.” A few pages later, we discover the wife’s response: “Dear husband, / I guess you would like to know the reason why / that I did not come when you wrote for / and that is because I hadnot the money… / dear husband If you are coming after me / I want you to come before it Get too cold.”
Most of the letters, however, are presented without counterparts; the poem refuses us the knowledge that they were answered or even received. The sense of loss generated by reading these one-sided missives culminates in the poem’s last section, which Smith wove from veterans’ statements. Upon emancipation, many black soldiers changed or took on surnames that had been distorted or withheld by their masters under slavery. Lacking birth certificates and other official documentation, they struggled to prove their identities when they applied for the money promised to them for their service. Smith excised single lines from the depositions these soldiers wrote to petition the government for denied pensions and organized her selections into thematic litanies. The resulting section evokes the shared experiences of these men, deriving its power not from the voice of any individual but from the force of repetition:
I am 60 odd years of age—
I am 62 years of age next month—
I am about 65 years of age—
I reckon I am about 67 years old—
I am about 68 years of age—
I am on the rise of 80 years of age—
I am 89 years old—
I am 94 years of age—
I don’t know my exact age—
Multiplied this way, these simple assertions take on an unexpected gravity, blending into a clamor for justice, or even just acknowledgment. What happened to these soldiers and their claims? The poem offers no resolution, no sense of closure. Poured out onto a reader a century and a half too late, these supplications task us—much as they originally tasked the federal government—with the duty to listen.
In the book’s third section, Smith tackles manifestations of these problems in the twenty-first century. “The United States Welcomes You” attacks the reader with an interrogation that slowly gives way to fear—an incisive deconstruction of xenophobia and racism: “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, mute / As ghosts?”
Another long poem, “Watershed,” recounts an environmental health scandal. In the early 2000s, Rob Bilott, a corporate lawyer, discovered that the American chemical manufacturer DuPont had spent decades dumping the toxin perfluorooctanoic acid onto land purchased from a former employee rather than disposing of it according to regulation. The pollution sickened both livestock and people, many of whom developed cancer accompanied by disturbing, unclassifiable symptoms. Dead calves appeared with “hair missing back humped” or one eye “a brilliant chemical blue”; employees “came home sick—fever, nausea, diarrhea, / vomiting—‘Teflon flu.’” Once more, Smith mines the poem’s language from archival sources: this time, a 2016 New York Times article and a series of personal narratives catalogued by the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation, an organization dedicated to exploring “consciousness experiences and [spreading] the message of love, unity, and peace around the world.”
Laced with disparate voices—dispassionate journalist (“Clients called R to say they had received diagnoses of cancer”), concerned worker (“It don’t look like anything I’ve been into before”), reflective survivor (“I was swept away by some unknown force, and started to move at an enormous speed. Just moving like a thunderbolt through a darkness”)—the hybrid nature of the poem is disorienting, at least at first. But as the narrative emerges, it becomes clear that any untangling is not only unnecessary but potentially damaging. Unlike other long narrative poems—Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White,” say, or Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”—“Watershed” doesn’t require a central embodied speaker to work. Rather, its power lies in its lack of a central speaker. Truth, Smith seems to suggest, arises not from any single person, but from the messy, incoherent collective. Only by having faith in that incoherence can we locate the full picture.
So what does such faith entail? Smith has said that Wade in the Water is, ultimately, a collection about love. “I’ve become really interested in thinking more deeply about compassion. I was going to say love,” she explained in an interview at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center. “This is a book that’s desperate for love to feel familiar…. [It’s] a book that’s obsessed with what it would feel like if I could love you, and you, and you, what our world would feel like if that was our prime objective, which, I’m told, it is supposed to be.”
Love isn’t a new topic for Smith. Her previous collection, Life on Mars, reads as an extended elegy for her father, an aerospace engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope; in the Berkley Center interview, she admits to including “a lot of… traditional love poems in my first three books.” Wade in the Water, however, traffics in love not for family but for strangers. It demands that we love those for whom we feel no obligation, with whom we share no history, even as political and racial conflict make such a possibility seem remote. “Is it strange to say love is a language / Few practice, but all, or near all speak?” Smith asks in “Unrest in Baton Rouge.” “Even the men in black armor, the ones / Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else / Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade / Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?”
The collection’s title poem models one such exchange of love. “Wade in the Water” describes a performance Smith attended by the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters. Through song and dance, the group preserves the history and culture of the Gullah people, an African American population that, due to patterns of slave importation, developed a unique creole language called Geechee. The performance began with a woman telling each member of the audience she loved them. For Smith, receiving such a gift was revelatory: “One of the women greeted me. / I love you, she said. She didn’t / Know me, but I believed her, / And a terrible new ache / Rolled over in my chest, / Like in a room where the drapes / Have been swept back.”
This love is surely one we need now. But Wade in the Water offers us no quick fixes. Instead, the collection invites us to grapple with the ways in which the past resonates in the present. Its most arresting poems trouble the concept that a single voice can speak for all, that the plurality of narratives that make up our nation can crystallize in the form of any one representative—a dilemma that stretches back more than two centuries to the Founding Fathers’ idea of America. Love, Smith suggests, requires this kind of long view. “When at last we knew how little / Would survive us—how little we had mended // Or built that was not now lost—something / Large and old awoke,” she writes in “An Old Story.” “And then our singing / Brought on a different manner of weather.” Armed with the weight of history, Wade in the Water calls on us to revel in the nation’s irreducible diversity even as we engage in the messy, complicated, uncomfortable process of listening: the difficulties, but also the pleasures, of helping democracy succeed.
 James Madison, Federalist Papers: No. 10, “The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” New York Packet, 23 November 1787, accessed Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed10.asp.
 “From John Adams to James Sullivan, 26 May 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-04-02-0091.
 Hilton Als, “Tracy K. Smith’s Poetry of Desire,” New Yorker, 1 October 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/01/tracy-k-smiths-poetry-of-desire.
 “Who We Are,” Near Death Experience Research Foundation, accessed 30 November 2018, https://www.nderf.org/pages_about.html.
 “A Conversation with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith,” Georgetown University Berkley Center, 26 October 2017, 8:03 – 8:40, https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/events/a-conversation-with-u-s-poet-laureate-tracy-k-smith.
 Ibid., 8:19 – 8:22.