How does one wade in the water, when the water is toxic? The current United States Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, approaches this question in a variety of thought-provoking ways in her profound fourth collection, Wade in the Water. The water Smith considers is literal, political, historical, and metaphorical: the water we drink, the culture we are steeped in, the history we carry with us, and the spirituality imbued in our everyday lives. With a deeply critical mind, Smith probes these dynamics through juxtaposition, documentary poetics, erasure techniques, secular hermeneutics, as well as anecdotal narrative. Following her Pulitzer prize winning collection, Life on Mars, Smith returns to an abused and ravaged earth, and listens to its discontents, sorrows, and complaints and shows us what is essential and not essential to the human condition.
At the center of this struggle for a world we can all wade in are power dynamics. Whether political or domestic, on a grand or a small scale, these dynamics directly affect the daily existence of Americans, whether we realize it or not. Power dynamics also affect our drinking water. Water is supposed to cleanse, replenish, and revive us, and yet due to unregulated toxic chemicals seeping into drinking water, it is killing people, in America and around the world. In the eco-poetics poem “Watershed,” Smith pulls phrases from an article summarizing a lawyer’s long-standing legal battle with the megacorporation DuPont. The case exposed decades of chemical pollution that resulted not only in sick employees, but in severe water contamination in specific towns as well as contamination throughout the world. The second definition of watershed is: an event or period marking a turning point in a course of action or state of affairs. This case against DuPont was a watershed moment in environmental legislation, though for many people the outcome came too late; the original plaintiffs both died of cancer after watching the majority of their 200 cows become diseased, deranged, and die from contaminated drinking water.
It is difficult to digest the horrific ramifications of DuPont’s negligence, nearly all people have been exposed to PFOA, the poisonous chemical used to process Teflon, it is in our blood and blood banks. Tracy K. Smith could have read this article in the NYT and gone on with her day, but instead she created a lasting work of art that stands as testament to this catastrophic event. With a surgical hand Smith extracts particularly disturbing portions of this text and interweaves them with extracts from a second text, accounts of near-death experiences, which are considerably different in tone and subject matter. This kind of courageous leap in thought is part of what makes contemporary poetics so exciting. The result of this interweaving is an almost surreal poem that underlines this global health threat, and also considers what it really means to be on the threshold between life and death. The near-death experiences Smith selects are rooted in love, an action opposite of the ones corporations are accustomed to taking. In the afterlife, according to these accounts, “All that was made, said, done, or even thought without love was undone.”
If this is how we imagine the afterlife, then why does humanity do so much that is devoid of love within our daily lives? “I suspect that Earth may be a place of education,” one near-death survivor postulates, and there is still so much to learn. Smith is particularly adept at refocusing her camera eye from the macro to the micro, external to the internal, and vise-versa, allowing for the implications of the political on personal lives. In one of the most powerful documentary poems in Wade in the Water, Smith slips into the voices of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, many of whom were former slaves. Smith painstakingly culls lines and words from letters to family members, but also from pleas to Abraham Lincoln for freedom and justice, and arranges them in epistolary poems which reveal the myriad of injustices these soldiers were facing during the Civil War as well as their personal concerns for their families:
Mr president It is my Desire to me free to go see my people
on the eastern shore my mistress wont let me you will please
let me know if we are free and what I can do
One could say Smith is giving voice to these people, but the poems also exhibit how these men had voices—earnest, strong, and heartfelt voices—it’s just that this country too often lacks the ears to hear marginalized voices. This poem culminates in lines pulled from depositions from soldiers many years after the Civil War who have not received pensions from the government for their services. This long poem is set off by the opening poem of the section which is an erasure of the Declaration of Independence:
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—
Smith shines a light on how injustices too often beget more injustices, and oppression has too often been the central method through which this country operates in the name of freedom.
Tracy K. Smith is primarily concerned with leveling these power dynamics, the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most valuable document in the country is stripped down and laid bare, to exhibit its faults and inherent blindness. Even the intentions of God and angels are brought into question, and the Garden of Eden is reduced to a grocery store that the speaker of the opening poem occasionally visits after therapy. If earth is Eden, why do we keep in destroying its lands and resources and oppressing its people? I say we, because this book implicates us all in the collective poisoning of this water. Smith closes Wade in the Water with a mythic poem titled “An Old Story,” “Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful / Dream. The worst of us having taken over / And broken the rest utterly down,” the question is how do we stop this old story from continuing to repeat itself? In the end, Smith is ultimately hopeful that the human spirit can prevail and that the earth and its peoples are capable of healing, and yet there is also the sense that this too could be a myth.
Wade in the Water
Tracy K. Smith
Brunch: I felt inspired today to make something new, chocolate gluten-free pancakes stuffed with bananas and blueberries. I wanted a thin pancake that was still thicker than a crepe so I added twice as much coconut milk as the recipe required, I find that coconut milk creates a better texture than regular milk at least in gluten-free recipes. I added cinnamon and nutmeg as well as cocoa powder though it is also good with just chocolate chips. I sprinkled a little gluten-free granola on top along with some maple syrup and a touch of honey, and served it with coffee. Note on the photos: artworks in the book and on the postcard are by Georgia O'Keefe.
*All Fork and Page reviews are by Anita Olivia Koester