“I found my wristwatch from ten years ago / And felt glad awhile.”
So begins the second stanza of “Something Like Dying, Maybe,” the poem that opens Tracy K. Smith’s “Such Color.” The retrospective line provides an appropriate opening for the collection, which marks the first time Smith’s decades-spanning work has been assembled in a volume of selected poems.
Combining three of Smith’s previous books — her 2003 debut “The Body’s Question,” 2018’s “Wade in the Water” and the 2021 release “Riot” — the collection “Such Color” celebrates Smith’s extraordinary legacy and continuing impact. The poems transcend geohistorical boundaries, taking us from Jamaica in 1891 to Beijing’s Songzhuang Art Village in 2017 to outer space, such as in Smith’s 2011 volume “Life on Mars,” which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. At a time when much of the world remains at a standstill, this voyage through time and space feels like a reckoning — and a gift.
“Such Color,” being an anthology, invites us to look back. As a scholar, Smith draws heavily from archival material in her work; her poems often cite historical documents, letters and even articles from The New York Times. “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It,” for example, uses letters and statements by Black soldiers enlisted in the Civil War to chronicle the injustices Black people faced before, during and following conscription. By preserving the language and spelling of the source texts, Smith animates them on the page in a way that feels both corporeal and phantom-like.
“They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected” is another archival poem, based on reports from Spring 2009 about hate crimes across the country. The poem names both the victims and their attackers, sometimes disturbingly so — the fourth section of the poem is a heartbreaking series of letters, subtitled “In Which the Dead Send Postcards to Their Assailants From America’s Most Celebrated Landmarks.”
“I used to think my body was a container for love,” writes Smith as Johanna Justin-Jinich, who was killed in 2009. “There is so much more now without my body…I don’t know where I end.” The tone of the letter is calm and empathetic — belying the grief and injustice that underlines the one-sided exchange.
In this way, Smith’s poems often resemble primary sources in a historical study — a testament to her attention to detail and commitment to truth-seeking. “The voices,” wrote Smith in the notes section of the book, “should command all of the space within my poem.”
Just as Smith amplifies marginalized perspectives by inserting textual evidence into her poems, the instances where she chooses to erase words become profoundly telling.
“Declaration,” for instance, reframes the Declaration of Independence, a text originally centered on freedom, to expose its underlying connotations of slavery. The “independence” missing from the title seems to fill in the blanks created by em dashes throughout: “He has plundered our— / ravaged our— /destroyed the lives of our—.”
Blank spaces also appear in ominous locations throughout “The Elephant in the Poem,” one of the newer erasure poems from “Riot.” “Some ____ appeared to have died suddenly,” begins the poem, which addresses death throughout without naming the subjects it befell. Upon first read, one might not realize that the poem is about literal elephants; Smith wrote it after learning about the mysterious, mass elephant die-offs that took place in Botswana in 2020. Yet in a year that has seen so many needless deaths, the poem’s final lines — “at this point the deaths / do not constitute a crisis” — also speak to the country’s at times blatant disregard for human lives.
Smith is a curious poet, and the inquisitive nature of her poems reflect this thoughtfulness. Her poems are often composed of questions, some of which demand no response (“Is God being or pure force?”) and some that evoke possibility. In “Ghazal,” for instance, Smith asks: “Can you imagine what will sound from us … when we find ourselves alone with all we’ve ever sought: our name?”
Then there’s “The United States Welcome You,” a poem entirely made up of questions asked of and by immigrants — from the accusatory (“Have you stolen something?”) to the uncertain (“What if we / Fail?”). By intermingling these different questions, often within the same line, Smith invites us to think about how the questions imposed on outsiders can become internalized, transforming into insecurities magnified within. Indeed, questions are a central part of Smith’s poetic practice, and they gesture to the complexity of understanding ourselves and others. As Smith writes in “Duende,” “There is … Always a question / Bigger than itself.”
For a collection filled with so much grief and absence, however, “Such Color” also asks us to think about life and presence. “We took new stock of one another,” writes Smith in “An Old Story,” the poem that gives the collection its name. “We wept to be reminded of such color.” It’s a hopeful sentiment, and one that resonates with the final poem of the volume, “Riot.” In that poem, Smith’s trademark em dashes don’t signify erasure, as they did in “Declaration.” Instead, they elongate meaning and invite us to see artistic creation as a generative act: “We live— / deep color / our heart leaps / We live—over and again / our heart leaps.”
Though many years separate some of the poems in “Such Color,” they all carry the empathetic, pensive and bold quality of Smith’s work. In a time where the world can seem irreparably divisive, her poems navigate grief, love and resistance with strength — guiding us through life’s color palette to find common ground.
May Huang is a writer and translator. Find her on Twitter, @mayhuangwrites.
Read more of the Oct. 20-26, 2021 issue.