by Laura Ohlmann
October 6, 2021

Laura Ohlmann  is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida. Her work is forthcoming in The Rumpus and Twyckenham Notes. It has also appeared in The Maine ReviewSouth Florida Poetry Journal, and The Lindenwood Review, among others. She is an Associate Poetry Editor with West Trade Review and enjoys traveling in her converted Honda Element with her partner and dog.
Such Color by Tracy K. Smith; Graywolf Press; 240 pages; $26

​ It seems apt Tracy K. Smith’s Such Color is releasing amidst the burst of fall leaves both decorating and decaying on the streets. This collection of poetry is composed in five parts: four are selected poems from Smith’s previously published works, and a section of new poems.

If you’ve never read Smith’s poetry, this collected work will be a true delight. The image-packed language in her poetry is like a great glass of wine—it lingers on your tongue, as you absorb the effects. The first section, excerpted from her 2003 collection, The Body’s Question, is ironic, contrasting the overarching title. The poems contain little color, instead leaning on shadow and the illusion of darkness, such as, “her eyes / See rooms and houses where there is only / Shadow and light,” in her poem “Appetite.”

A common theme in her entire body of work is her relationship with her father. This repetition resonates because those mourning often look towards shadows and light to find meaning in loss. Smith’s writing is further sent into a dimension of darkness and potential color, through the lens of her father’s death and optic work on the Hubble Telescope.

One motif Smith uses in her work is smoke: it comes from cigarettes, homes, and the “soft core teeming blue with fire.” Smoke is usually mentioned during the contemplation of mourning. Her poem, “Slow Burn” is about a man overcome with addiction, but the speaker writes about him in a way that is forgiving and empathetic. Unlike the speaker of the poem, the man is not “afraid to name” his grief. 

Smith often writes from a persona point of view, including those in other locations. Her poem, “Theft,” diverts into the perspective of a young boy, who is Ho-Chunk Native American. He’s taken from his mother and put in ruthless foster homes. This persona doesn't seem unrealistic or opportunistic, instead the voice of the boy is fluent in the same language our speaker knows, which is grief and loss. It’s difficult to emphasize how powerful this perspective is, but Smith continues to lead with punch-after-punch, while the reader still stands in the ring for more.

Her third section from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Life On Mars has a more whimsical and light-hearted energy to it. It also features two of her landmark poems, “My God, It’s Full of Stars” and “Life on Mars.” These poems gravitate towards topics that include letters from murderers to their murder victims, the expanse of the universe, and a poem about her future child. Each piece scales the walls of grief, without falling into its depth. 

The fast-paced energy in Life On Mars creates a range of long to short poems, often utilizing short sentences to elevate the pace, such as “When Your Small Form Tumbled Into Me.” These poems are surprising and joyful. They break-up the book in a playful way, even when the meaning undercuts to a deeper sadness.

The selected poems from Smith's 2018 Wade in the Water may be the most heartbreaking and extensively researched of the collection. The reader is given fourteen pages of letters composed by Civil War soldiers, wives, children, and parents. Smith does not break up the sections with personal poetry, instead the weight of these captive, starving, and desperate African-Americans rests on the reader without pause. 

Tracy K. Smith often gravitates towards political poetry to lend her fruitful gaze, to personalize and shed-light on the experiences of those less-fortunate, and cast-down Black Americans. She pauses on the overlooked racism in American society, by engulfing the reader in those experiences.

Smith ends the poem, “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About it” in a culmination of pleas, where claimants state their age, “I am 60 odd years of age—” and “I am on the rise of 80 years of age—” each age breaking onto a new line. These compiled letters seem to be written to receive the penchant they are owed from serving in the war, most of which were never given or that they waited decades to receive. The list of soldiers' ages, and injuries, then their names, is a blunt force.

This passage’s tone is angry and passionate in an attempt at justice, by representing the voiceless. These poems are like the chorus of all of those who were forsaken, after everything they gave, because of their skin color. Wade in the Water ends with a landslide of high-energy, blistering, image-driven poems that are yearning for peace and justice.

Smith begins and ends the final and brand-new section, Riot, with two poems called, “Riot.” It has the energy, grief, desire, and rage, burning in a ball that will topple those in its path. The poems utilize rhyme, found poetry, fill in the blank structures, and repetition to confront America’s racism. 

In “A Suggestion,” Smith repeats a Civil War widow’s words, “why not represent a small group of them in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance.” Smith reconfigures this race-filled phrase, over and over in each stanza to signify how racism has continually been emboldened by monuments that were built to oppress African-Americans. “Found Poem,” an erasure of a Woodrow Wilson’s essay, highlights how his former accomplishments have been nullified and erased from history because of his abhorrent racism. Smith achieves this by sizing down his essay to a single-page poem. This poem is a small victory chant.

Smith’s work continues to weave black and white imagery and allusion to call attention to race and segregation. In Riot, she confronts racial injustice head on. Instead, each poem is a “white sharp blade.” She sheds her grief like a phoenix of its feathers and brings home a bout of poetry that will leave readers longing for a full collection of RiotSuch Color ends on a chant: “We Live—” which envelopes the reader in hope.

©2021 West Trade Review
Shedding Grief With Such Color by Tracy K. Smith
Image by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

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