Col­li­sions with the world’s solid fist

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.


The power of Tracy K. Smith’s mem­oir lies in its anatomy of the ab­sent and con­cealed

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