The Body’s Question
Just as I was beginning to have my doubts about ‘negative capability’—maybe it really is just a prank played on posterity by Keats’s sorry MD-style penmanship—along comes a new poet with neg. cap. to spare. Wisely chosen by Kevin Young to receive the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Tracy K. Smith is a poet of inventive precision, whose study of a worm in a tequila bottle is a tour de force:
Its last happy exhalations,
Lungs giddy, mouth spilling
A necklace of minuscule bubbles
Through a world suddenly liquid,
Suddenly amber with a warmth
That scalded the eyes—
Which blinked once, sealing shut—
Then traveled the slender nerves
Along its body to the nerve knot
Whose final message
Was to curl around itself
Like a boutonniere
Before going limp?
This portrait is the brightest star of a constellation-like poem showing the speaker and her lover entwined in various rooms, tents, cities and fields; the worm is the precisest, indeed a literal, manifestation of the titular ‘body’s question’. In this volume, the body is not only Smith’s consistent subject matter but also her device, and her poetry is most compelling when the body is the means by which the rest of the world’s people, places, and perspectives are investigated.
At times, this project produces a strange inside-out effect, wherein the speaker’s body is found in a setting which then becomes, via metaphor, a body of its own. In ‘Serenade’, a night of raucous partying on the part of the speaker and her friends concludes:
[…]daylight appears just about to rise
To its feet, like a guest
Who’s sat all night
Keeping time to lively music.
After this expertly rendered resolution, white space transforms the page to dawn; so the entire poem seems to ‘rise/[t]o its feet’, taking speaker and reader along with it.
At other times, this imaginative embodying of surroundings serves to depict the humanity of the personae who perceive the comparisons. In a series of poems labeled “Gospel,” male Latino speakers describe the land they flee or fight over or glimpse from hillsides, and their attitudes are conveyed by their choices of metaphor. “When I saw the hills, how they resembled/The bodies of our women/I knew this country/Never stopped being our country” remarks Alejandro, while Luis, stranded in the desert at night, detects around him “Eyes lit like sparks/A house gives off when it burns.” After the accounts of these wrenchingly mortal men, the surprising final speaker is Jesus, a Jesus who seems comparatively privileged in his ambivalent bodilessness; restless while baptizing, he remarks “I watch my hands/until I am watching out from my hands.” This statement could be the ars poetica of Smith’s aesthetic, and this slightly bored, fractious speaker is an entirely fresh Jesus—who knew one could still be written!
Typically, however, Smith’s speaker is a speaker-poet, and the majority of the poems provide reportage on her habitual speaker in motion and at rest. This young woman dances the merengue, sleeps on the beach, travels, stumbles through love affairs, sits on fire escapes, cooks, eats, mourns, and, of course, writes. In her best moments, she observes the cities, beds, and relationships she moves through:
The language you taught me rolls
From your mouth into mine
The way kids will pass smoke
Between them. You feed it to me
Until my heart grows fat.
Despite Smith’s ability with metaphor, her first-person poems do not make the most of fine moments like these. Some seem poorly constructed, with too much time spent on mundane set-up (lines like “You, her, him, me”) to get to terrific images (“Lying beside you was like/Dangling a leg/Over the edge/Of a drifting boat”). Phrasal lineation also makes some poems drag. Others are deflated by their frames; potent, if surreal, imagery is exposed as a literal dream or as “talking all kinds of shit.” Admittedly, even these disappointing resolutions are often gorgeously crafted.
Waking up from a dream,
I woke, touching ground gently
Like a parachutist tangled in low branches.
All those buildings, those marvelous bodies
Pulled away as though they’d never known me.
The above passage concludes the volume’s first poem, “Something like Dying, Maybe,” and the hesitancy of this title suggests that Smith is a poet who has not yet found forms as confident as her remarkable images. In the above passage, the arrival of this metaphorical parachutist is permitted by the license of the dream extending into the waking world, even as it reports the dream ending. One wonders what will be produced when Smith further dismantles the conventional frames surrounding her impressive visions.