Wade in the Water: Poems

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith (Ordinary Light) believes poetry can "help us make sense of the contemporary moment." That moment includes her country's historical and present-day acts of injustice against refugees, former slaves, African Americans and the poor. Her fourth collection, Wade in the Water, examines that injustice (political and personal) with sharp insight and telling detail.

Smith moves deftly from the broad theme to the striking personal image: in "New Road Station," for example, "History is in a hurry. It moves like a woman/ Corralling her children onto a crowded bus." "Unrest in Baton Rouge," inspired by the iconic photo of a female protester facing down two armored policemen, asks, "Is it strange to say love is a language/ Few practice, but all, or near all speak?" The poem mentions "jangling handcuffs" and blood that "pools in the pavement's seams," but its enduring image is "Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,/ Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze."

While Smith repeatedly calls injustice and its perpetrators to account, her poems also contain deep compassion and an insistence on hope. She writes with warmth about her young daughter in "4 1/2" and "Dusk," and recalls fond childhood memories in "Urban Youth": "The hedges thrummed with bees/ That only sang." Family and love can be fraught, too, but Smith is fierce in her cherishing of the good.

"What is the soul allowed to keep?" Smith asks in "Eternity." "Every/ Birth, every small gift, every ache?" Wade in the Water is deeply frank about the ache, but it also quietly celebrates many small--and vital--gifts. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

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