Scorching, Sophisticated New Work From Two of America’s Leading Poets

Tracy K. Smith

When Robert Frost was poet laureate in the late 1950s, he saw himself as a political as well as a literary eminence. He expected his advice to be sought on pressing matters of state.

He later flew to Russia to talk to Khrushchev about the crisis in Berlin. Walls were, as they are now, in the news. We know, of course, how Frost felt about them. He wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall / That wants it down.”

The flagrant unlikelihood of anyone in today’s White House ingesting a book of poems, much less consulting Tracy K. Smith, our current laureate, on any matter, is apparent. If someone in the West Wing did pick up “Wade in the Water,” her new collection, it would very likely burn his or her fingers.

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. In a poem titled “An Old Story,” she comes out and says it:

The worst in us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.

In an early poem in “Wade in the Water,” her fourth collection, two grizzled angels in leather biker gear show up in a hotel room, reeking of rum and gasoline. There is a sense in this volume that our better angels will need to become rowdier. They will need to know how to handle themselves in a brawl.

“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. One is based on a soldier’s letter — Smith maintains the original spellings — and includes these words:

Sir We the members of Co D of the 55th Massechusetts vols
Call the attention of your Excellency to our case —

for instant look & see
that we never was freed yet
Run Right out of Slavery
In to Soldiery & we
hadent nothing atall &
our wifes & mother most all of them
is aperishing all about & we
all are perishing our self

Another found poem is based on survivors’ accounts and journalism about the DuPont company’s dumping of hazardous wastes in Appalachia.

Credit...Rachel Eliza Griffiths

This volume is not entirely a ticket on a doom-bound train. There are poems about the poet’s childhood and her own children. Quotidian delights are sampled. In one, on a long flight, the poet “snuck a wedge of brie, and wept / Through a movie starring Angelina Jolie.”

“Wade in the Water” is Smith’s first collection since “Life on Mars,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. If this new book lacks some of the range and depth and allusiveness of that earlier book, well, she has battened down certain hatches.

The most memorable lines in “Life on Mars” were perhaps these, and they linger too over Smith’s new book:

The worst thing you can imagine has already
Zipped up its coat and is heading back
Up the road to wherever it came from.

In 2018, you are nobody without an acronym. If Smith, America’s PLOTUS, has a new book out, so does PEONY — that is, the poetry editor of The New Yorker. Kevin Young is still relatively new in that influential position; he is also the director of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

These poets are friends. They attended Harvard two years apart. Young wrote the introduction to Smith’s first book of poems, “The Body’s Question” (2003). They are very different writers.

Young is a maximalist, a putter-inner, an evoker of roiling appetites. As a poet of music and food, his only rival is Charles Simic. His love poems are beautiful and sexy and ecstatic.

He mostly wears his politics lightly but regularly sinks hooks into you that cannot easily be removed. His book of selected poems, “Blue Laws” (2016), is as indispensable as any volume this decade. It is a delivery system for many varieties of complicated and uncomplicated joy.

Young produces so much that his audience can become stupefied. He writes books of cultural criticism, edits anthologies and composes so much poetry that he sometimes issues what he calls outtakes and remixes from earlier work.

Keeping up with him is like trying to keep up with Bob Dylan or Prince in their primes. Even the bootlegs have bootlegs. His manic-impressive productivity can lead to soft spots in his work, which is why “Blue Laws,” a judicious paring down, is so valuable.

Young’s new book, “Brown,” is vital and sophisticated without surpassing anything he’s done before. It’s a solid midcareer statement.

A few of its poems are explicitly political. One is about Trayvon Martin; another is titled “A Brown Atlanta Boy Watches Basketball on West 4th. Meanwhile, Neo-Nazis March on Charlottesville, Virginia.”

Credit...Melanie Dunea/CPi

Young has long been investigating the lives, art and lingering meanings of black cultural figures. He seems to know everything and everyone. Playlists and bookstore receipts and theater stubs and archive call slips seem to spill from his pockets. Indeed, he once referred to what he called “my magpiety.”

In this book there are excellent poems that name-check or investigate more closely people like Lead Belly, Tracy Chapman, Hank Aaron, the painter Jacob Lawrence and the jazz guitarist Charlie Christian. One poem is titled, after the rapper, “Ode to Ol Dirty Bastard.”

Other poems in this book revisit the author’s childhood in the Midwest: dodgeball games, RC Cola, Atari, wrestling coaches, health teachers and casual and not-so-casual racism.

Young evokes his “baby dreads, tortoiseshells, tight fade.” He cannot help but be a poet of micro-felicities. Watching Arthur Ashe on television, he observes:

Your hair a microphone cover
to help keep
the static down.

“We were black then, about to be / African American,” he writes about his school days, before adding that he and his friends had

given the campus cops the slip
whenever they quizzed or frisked us
for studying while black.

The key to a certain kind of songwriting, it’s been said, is to deliver blues in the verse and gospel in the chorus. There’s not a lot of gospel in these two books — just a strong, wary sense of watching and waiting.

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