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Tracy K. Smith’s “Wade in the Water” pays tribute to voices unheard in a moving collection of poems

5/5 Stars

Published in 2018, “Wade in the Water” is a book of poems by 2017 U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, which works to address racism, injustice and historical impacts of slavery in the modern-day U.S. Sectioned into four parts which cover perspectives from the 1800s through the present, “Wade in the Water” draws from multiple foundational source texts to contextualize and bring forward voices of those unheard. 

Smith is an acclaimed American author and poet from Massachusetts later living in California. After earning her Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University and Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University, Smith went on to produce four works of poetry and memoir including “The Body’s Question” (2003), “Duende” (2007), “Life on Mars” (2011), “Ordinary Light” (2015) and most recently, “Wade in the Water” (2018). Among other awards, Smith was recognized as the 2011 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for “Life on Mars” and just before her publication of “Wade in the Water,” named the 2017 U.S. Poet Laureate.

In “Wade in the Water,” Smith uses erasure poetry, also known as blackout poetry, by selecting works ranging from the mid-1800s through the early 2000s which exemplifies the Black struggle, perseverance and courage, taking selected words and phrases, sometimes whole excerpts and creating poems from what remains. One of the most obvious and easily digestible poems introduces Part II, “Declaration.” This poem exclusively takes phrases from America’s Declaration of Independence, forming a mass of half-phrases working to remind the audience of the looming burden of slavery and its social aftermath. 

Additionally, Smith differentiates between the use of her voice and others by italicizing referenced words and phrases, citing them in the book’s ending “Notes” section, and by including valuable epigraphs at the head of some poems. Additionally, Smith takes care to stay authentic to the referenced written word by leaving misspellings and wavering grammar as is, creating a definition between one of the central themes: “us” and “them.” Most apparent in Part II, “I will tell you the truth about this, I will tell you about it” and poems thereafter, Smith uses these poems to plead a lost sense of identity stripped when slavery began. 

In other works, Smith relies on her captivating use of imagery, creating simple vignettes in Parts I and II, then illustrating increasingly complex scenes as she incorporates more voices throughout Parts III and IV. If using her own voice, Smith writes as though she is speaking, ebbing and flowing through the use of caesuras breaking most lines down the middle, and pausing for release of tension during such heavy historical lines. In some poems, most notably in “Hill Country,” Smith crunches down on her consonants when coupled with appropriate imagery, such as the contrast between man and nature, while in others, uses cooler phrases. 

Though there is so much to unpack, one does not have to be particularly well-versed to understand the historical significance of “Wade in the Water.” As the author, Smith serves as the vessel for which many voices of history are carried, giving time to unveil unrelenting truths such as upheaval, grief and communal perseverance, in turn, calling for love and change.

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