Pulitzer poet memoir portrays childhood

by Dina Kleiner / Beacon Staff • February 2, 2017

I was first introduced to Tracy K. Smith four years ago when a mentor of mine casually named a couple of contemporary poets worth checking out. I purchased her second book, Duende, at the time, and it’s stayed with me ever since. Her poems were unlike anything I’d ever read—lucid yet dreamlike, brutal yet almost celestial in tone, full of beauty without being too precious.

So when Smith published her memoir, Ordinary Light, I was eager to read it. The writing that earned her a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012 feels more grounded in her memoir. Her prose in Ordinary Light is less electric than her poetry, but still burns with truths on childhood, religion, and race.

Smith describes being a young child, obedient and reserved in nature, always following her mother around like a “tiny satellite.” She narrates her own childhood the way children view their own lives—with a matter-of-factness manner that comes with not knowing any different. Smith recounts seeing a curse word written for the first time, “My initial reaction was silence—the kind of silence a child feels when some new gear in the world begins to turn for the first time.”

Smith’s childhood was also religious. Her mother maintained a strict household with rules surrounding Christianity and ritual and prayer and chastity. While Smith questions God and the purpose of prayer throughout her memoir, she reflects upon religion with compassion. As a young adult, Smith ventures away from her parents’ version of faith before coming back around to church and God later in life, determining what religion means to her.

But, the parts of Smith’s memoir about Christianity aren’t just about Christianity. They are also about Smith’s questioning of her identity at the time, about the beliefs she inherited from the world she came from and the new world she hoped to create for herself. As an atheist who is Asian-passing and was raised as a Jew, I never really related to stories surrounding God or Jesus or coming to terms with religion—it just didn’t apply to me. But Smith’s way of describing her family’s own beliefs, the beliefs she defied and then learned to adjust for herself, made sense to me.

More than anything, Smith’s memoir is about her mother. The work builds up to the death of her mother after Smith graduates from Harvard University. So much of Smith’s work is a meditation on death, how death surrounds us, how our questions about death dictate our lives—and yet, her memoir is far from heavy or dramatic or epic in attempting to challenge the universe. Rather, Smith poses questions as quiet thoughts to the self, reserved in nature but powerful in the way they burn in the mind and linger past the page.

Smith writes with a light touch—she narrates past moments of her life as if she were still there, yet manages to maintain a sense of perspective. She illustrates dark moments of loss and grief with a delicateness and curiosity reminiscent of her poetry—always gentle in tone, yet brutal in evoking the enormity of existence.

Smith is no longer just one of my most beloved poets, but one of my most beloved writers. I am convinced of her ability to whisk words up out of nothing, to create beauty out of despair, to transcend medium and be defined only by her voice—as distinct and powerful as ever.