Collisions with the world’s solid fist
Felicity Plunkett Ordinary Light: A Memoir By Tracy K. Smith Alfred A. Knopf, 368pp, $45 (HB)
In the shadows that fall around Pulitzer prizewinning poet Tracy K. Smith’s luminous memoir Ordinary Light, presences hover and shift. For all its resplendent energy and sharp evocation of the shape of lives, its power lies in its anatomy of the absent and concealed.
A generation after Adrienne Rich’s articulation of the need to overcome the ‘‘inadequate or lying language’’ that cloisters difficult experience so as to ‘‘speak the unspeakable’’, Or
dinary Light does this with subtlety and dynamism.
The memoir begins where language collapses under the pressure of mourning. In a prologue describing the death of Smith’s mother, pain is a word that ‘‘doesn’t hurt enough, doesn’t know how to tell what it stands for’’. Afterwards, her adult children prepare her body for ‘‘the strangers who were already on their way’’, protecting the dignity of what is now ‘‘the shell, the empty shape, the idea of our mother’’.
From here, Smith traces the textures and impressions of her childhood in the 1970s and 80s in the small town of Fairfield, northern California. The youngest of five children after a gap of eight years, Smith’s arrival follows the loss of a sibling during pregnancy. Smith’s mother refuses to allow the ‘‘minuscule body’’ to be used for research; it seems cruel to ‘‘poke and prod and slice into the child’’ who ‘‘wasn’t meant to be’’.
With gentle unwaveringness, Ordinary Light bears witness to such absences, and to the surrounding pain of racial segregation and violence, which Smith describes as ‘‘the pain we hate most because we know it has been borne by the people we love’’.
Shadows fall across scenes lit by the ordinary light of equable childhood days. Pain is rolled and folded into small incidents. In the first of the book’s poem-like segments, ‘‘My Book House’’, Smith is encouraged to read. In one anthology she finds the story Little Black
Sambo and notes her parents’ uneasy response to it. Only gradually does she come to understand the significance of her own identity as a young black girl and the experiences of her parents in the south.
While her ‘‘first collision with the world’s solid fist’’ comes when a calf kicks her, it is the intrusions of racism that inflict lingering wounds, such as the sudden cut of a friend’s curious question: ‘‘Don’t you wish you were white?’’ Another question — ‘‘ How come you talk so white?’’ — addressed to Smith’s sister by another black girl, prompts the girls’ father to stress that ‘‘speaking properly has nothing to do with race or even class but rather drive, intelligence, effort’’. He was, Smith remembers ‘‘not what you’d call a race man. The vocabu- lary of social justice didn’t fit naturally in his mouth.’’ Yet he and Smith’s mother were turned away from the hotel they had booked for their honeymoon when the clerk decided their reservation had been made in error. They ‘‘didn’t serve negroes’’.
Around these words form the scar tissue and the silence ‘‘a child feels when some new gear in the world begins to turn for the first time’’.
This is the human harm that sits ‘‘just outside the frame of those stories of the long-ago days down south’’ with its ‘‘terrible threats to people like us, threats of violence and scorn’’. This includes the violence of those who do ‘‘the thing that whites sometimes do to the blacks they admire, which is to strip them of their blackness, as if doing so were a kind of favour’’.
The question of identity spins ‘‘in countless ways upon axes of race, class, gender, sexuality and whatever else we were willing to consider’’. Smith’s tracing of these axes — the plural of axis with its echo of the axe — is shifting, complex and mobile, conscious as she is of the ways privilege and injury might be coiled together.
Beyond these questions, other violence simmers. Richard Ramirez, a serial rapist and killer known as the Night Stalker prowls California. At first, Smith tries to contain her fear, not wanting ‘‘to give it the weight talking it through would confer. But silence only made it larger.’’ The threat of nuclear proliferation hovers, at a time when ‘‘technology … didn’t fit so easily into a person’s pocket’’.
While her father, a scientist, engages in work ‘‘the rest of us barely knew how to envision’’, Smith’s mother encourages her children into her faith. Between the unknowability of science and God, Smith finds the axis and gravitational pull of poetry. Through poetry, she punctures the silences that surround her.
Smith’s work came to the attention of an international audience when Life on Mars, her third collection, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. This extraordinary collection examines art, space and grief telescopically and microscopically in poems wrapped around an oblique elegy for her father, who worked on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Her previous collections The Body’s Ques
tion (2003) and Duende (2007) prefigure the pivoting between grief and joy, darkness and discovery that propels Life on Mars. Writing about
Duende, poet Elizabeth Alexander noted the darkness of death-in-life as its life force, while another poet, Kevin Young, praised The Body’s
Question for Smith’s capacity to ‘‘speak in tongues … to speak about that thing even beyond language’’ and to speak ‘‘a body language’’. Writing about birth as well as death in Ordinary Light, Smith describes an ‘‘unsettling sense of connection to an unknowable elsewhere … of being helplessly small in the face of something’’.
With awe and humility, Ordinary Light, recently shortlisted for the US National Book Awards, explores the development of insight.
In My God, It’s Full of Stars, one of the poems from Life on Mars, Smith starts from the wonder with which David Bowman, the protagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: a Space Odyssey, describes the galaxies he spins through. Smith’s wonder is both in and beyond language: with what it captures and grasps towards, with its power to shed light in the shadows, and with the ineffable that travels ahead of light and language.
Felicity Plunkett is poetry editor at UQP.
SHADOWS FALL ACROSS SCENES LIT BY THE LIGHT OF EQUABLE CHILDHOOD
The power of Tracy K. Smith’s memoir lies in its anatomy of the absent and concealed