Monday, April 16, 2012

Poem: Tracy K. Smith

In honor of her having received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry today (CONGRATULATIONS!), for her most recent book of poems, Life on Mars (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011), here is a poem by Tracy K. Smith (1972-), whom I've known and whose work I've deeply admired since she was a fellow member of the Dark Room Writers Collective back in the 1990s. (She is the fourth African-American woman to receive this prize, following in the brilliant tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, and Natasha Trethewey, also a former Dark Room Collective member.) Tracy graduated from Harvard and Columbia, and spent two years in the late 1990s at Stanford as a Stegner Fellow. She is an assistant professor--soon, I imagine, she will become a FULL professor, if she wants--at Princeton University.

Tracy has published three books, including The Body's Question (Graywolf, 2003), which received the Cave Canem Book Prize, and Duende (Graywolf, 2007), and has received numerous awards for her work, including a Whiting Writers Award, the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the Rona Jaffe Award, and the Essence Literary Award. Her poetry is precise, focused in its observation, sensuous but controlled in its language, suffused with emotion but never sentimental, and capable of drawing into clarity a world in just a few lines. Whatever she writes about--moments in history, her own or others--she brings all the tools of poetry to bear.  She knows her stuff through and through. Here's a poem from her first book, The Body's Question.


Driving home late through town
He woke me for a deer in the road,
The light smudge of it fragile in the distance,

Free in a way that made me ashamed for our flesh—  
His hand on my hand, even the weight
Of our voices not speaking.

I watched a long time
And a long time after we were too far to see,
Told myself I still saw it nosing the shrubs,

All phantom and shadow, so silent
It must have seemed I hadn’t wakened,
But passed into a deeper, more cogent state—

The mind a dark city, a disappearing,
A handkerchief
Swallowed by a fist.

I thought of the animal’s mouth
And the hunger entrusted it.  A hunger
So honed the green leaves merely maintain it.

We want so much,
When perhaps we live best
In the spaces between loves,

That unconscious roving,
The heart its own rough animal.

                           The second time,
There were two that faced us a moment
The way deer will in their Greek perfection,

As though we were just some offering
The night had delivered.
They disappeared between two houses,

And we drove on, our own limbs,
Our need for one another
Greedy, weak.

Copyright © Tracy K. Smith, "A Hunger So Honed," from The Body's Question, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2003. Al rights reserved.

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