A Path to Empathy: A Review of Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith / by Peter LaBerge

BY AMANDA HODES

  Wade in the Water , by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Tracy K. Smith’s fourth collection, Wade in the Water, surveys America and its history with an incisive, yet hopeful, honesty. By peeling back the present, Smith reveals the tendrilled roots of our nation’s grittier past. The forms of the poems range from erasures to ghazals to pantoums, but the cornerstone of the collection is the found poem, “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It,” which draws from the letters of African Americans in the Civil War. Detailing the injustices faced by the veterans and their families, the sequence features appeals to Abraham Lincoln, requests for due pension, and plans to reunite with separated family members. Preceding this piece is an erasure of the Declaration of Independence, reworked and recontextualized to speak directly to the racial discriminations of the past and present day. The speaker proclaims:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for
Redress in the most humble terms:
                                                         Our repeated
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

Smith then enumerates these “repeated petitions” through the intimate, letter-based poems that follow.

Throughout the book, Smith also continues to question the relationship between the political and the personal, focusing especially on the intermediary of human connection. In the aptly named “Political Poem,” the speaker depicts a dreamscape of two individuals mowing their lawns as they communicate wordlessly across the distance. The speaker imagines that one “let[s] his arm float up, stirring / the air with that wide, slow, underwater / gesture meaning Hello! and You there!” Through the word choice of “let” and “float,” this gesture of connection is rendered instinctive, as though the released arm raises, or “floats up,” of its own accord. Optimistically, empathy and recognition are portrayed as the natural default, even in the languorous setting of suburban America. The poem ends with the admission that the mowers’ work “would take forever. / But I love how long it would last.” The word “would” reminds the reader of the fictional nature of this interaction. Despite the scene’s normalcy, it remains in the conditional tense, as though asking us to actualize these everyday gestures of connection.

Similarly, in the last section of the collection, Smith turns an observant eye to the individuals surrounding us in our daily lives. In “Charity,” an elderly woman treks persistently up a hill, “tussl[ing] with gravity.” Even from a distance, the speaker identifies with the woman:

I am you, one day out of five,
Tired, empty, hating what I carry
But afraid to lay it down, stingy,
Angry, doing violence to others
By the sheer freight of my gloom,

These moments of self-recognition thread the collection. Even when unflattering, such observations prompt the speaker and readers to hold up a mirror to their own behavior—to empathize and see themselves in others. In “Eternity,” too, the speaker recognizes this interconnection, “as though all of us must be / Buried deep within each other.”

This method of self-association is the conceit of the poem, “Refuge,” near the end of the book. It expounds the potential of empathy as the speaker addresses a refugee:

Until I can understand why you
Fled, why you are willing to bleed,
Why you deserve what I must be
Willing to cede, let me imagine
You are my mother in Montgomery,

The speaker endeavors to understand the “you” of the poem through her own lens. Avoiding a false equivalency between her experiences and the refugee’s, she aims to connect as best as she can “until [she] can understand.” Beautifully wrought, these poems offer a path to empathy. While some may contend that true empathy may never be achievable, Smith doesn’t make any grand claims, and, instead, asks readers to relate as best they can through their own experiences. As the speaker divulges, “Until / I want to give you what I myself deserve, / Let me love you by loving her.”

These themes of history and connection underpin the work, though Smith’s characteristic inquiries into religion and nature are also prevalent. Poems like “The Angels” and “Hill Country” offer modern interpretations of religious themes; angels are “Grizzled, / In leather biker gear” and God is lodged at a “cabin / Where he goes to be alone with his questions.” In the present day, angels are calloused, and even God has withdrawn to the woods for quiet contemplation. Environmentalism, too, is a recurring concern. For instance, “Watershed” discusses the pollution of DuPont chemical company and its gruesome health impact on cattle with “chemical blue eyes” and nearby individuals diagnosed with cancer. Interspersed with a prose account of a near death experience, the poem offers a fractured narrative from the perspectives of a lawyer and a dying man.

Yet, for all these varied voices and outward observations, Smith eventually shifts her gaze to her family. In the later poems “4 ½” and “Dusk,” she shares a lighter optimism as she considers her daughter’s appetite for life and development of a “solid self-centered self.” The speaker muses, “She wants a movie, or maybe / Just the tussle of her will against mine, / That scrape and crack. Horn on rock.” Through these “tussles” and references to the steadfast goat, her daughter’s tenacity is underscored, implying a hopefulness for the future. “Dusk” even ends with following scene of her daughter:

                                              The shoulders
Still so naïve as to stand squared, erect,
Impervious facing the window open
Onto the darkening dusk.

Ultimately, Smith brings all of these concerns and voices together into a powerful collection. Bolstered by an array of sources, the poems gaze outward and observe with an incredibly perceptive eye. The past presses up against the present, and empathy hums consistently below as a driving force behind the collection’s explorations of religion, history, prejudice, and environmentalism. While the future may loom like a “darkening dusk,” we are asked to watch, equipped with the past and a resoluteness of self. In Smith’s words, as it approaches, “let it slam me in the face— / The known sun setting / On the dawning century.”

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Amanda Hodes is a writer and musician studying at American University in Washington, D.C. She serves as editor in chief of AmLit and has been published in Furrow Magazine, Prairie Margins, and AmLit. She was also a Folger Shakespeare Library Lannan Fellow and a 2017 Fulbright UK Summer Institute participant at the University of Sussex.