Wading In: On Tracy K. Smith’s New Poetry

By Ryan Boyd

Consider the everyday poetics of capitalism. Consider, that is, the languages and practices we have developed to exist within Western consumer markets. One quick way to define capitalism is to observe that it entails the dedication of all things, all human objects and ideas and actions, to profit, to the continual accumulation of wealth in private hands. The point of capitalism is to get more capital, which allows you to either procure stuff (things or experiences) or just hoard the lucre, deriving a weird pleasure from that. And as many have observed since capitalism emerged (see William Blake’s “Satanic mills” or Upton Sinclair’s meatpacking plants), this tends to have baleful effects on how we conceive of social relationships and our own selves. When capital is everything, queasy questions[1] bubble up: Is capitalism compatible with democracy? Why are we allowing industrialized transactional regimes that make us miserable to cook the planet alive? What happens to our relationships with others under these conditions which have “resolved personal worth into exchange value,” as Marx and Engels write in The Communist Manifesto? What—what on earth—constitutes a meaningful life in a market society?

Markets shape mindsets. According to the cultural theorist Mark Fisher, this mental architecture almost inevitably—barring unusual cultural circumstances or great personal fortitude—takes the form of “capitalist realism,” which consists in “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (Fisher’s italics). Capitalist realism is the language of the boardroom, the pop-up ad, the tax form, the PR statement, the subway banner, the chip-card reader, the medical bill, the Fidelity account. Under the intense weight of capital, this poisoned realism infects all other forms of discourse, connection, economy. Pessimism hobbles anyone who is paying attention. “Capitalism,” Fisher intones, “is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.”

Is there any alternative to “the morose conviction that nothing new can ever happen” (Fisher again)? Articulating one would require thinking of others as more than free particles in a market or economic obstacles and opportunities. Doing so would mean transforming language in its social, political, psychological, and aesthetic dimensions; it would mean altering how we speak in public, of other people, and in private, to ourselves.

Poetry might not seem like the best way to catalyze a revolution. After all, it supposedly makes nothing happen, according to Auden (indeed, imagine a poem changing President Trump’s mind on immigration), and it is the literary form for which capitalism has the least use, judging by its small contemporary readership.

But poetry that tries to represent individual subjectivity is well positioned to depict life under capitalism and to render possible post- or anti-capitalist alternatives. This would be a democratic project: a writer who takes it on would have to imagine a community where individuals aren’t just monads bouncing around the economy but are instead subjects whose lives matter regardless of how much or little capital is attached to them. It would mean giving space to voices that have long been silenced or distorted. Heavy lifting, to be sure. Though it’s not like we have much of choice. Capitalism has made a nightmare world, and we can either resist its pressures or chill with our smartphones and wait for climate change to kill us.

Along comes Tracy K. Smith’s new book, Wade in the Water (Graywolf). Educated at Harvard and Columbia, teaching at Princeton, named the US Poet Laureate in 2017, and already freighted with laurels (her previous book, Life on Mars, won the 2012 Pulitzer), Smith is no undiscovered talent. To say that she’s very good—that her poetry is not screwing around—is to state what has become increasingly obvious over the past decade. She is a democratic writer, because her project in Wade in the Water is to curate American voices, particularly those of marginalized people, but also her own, and to situate these within the dark sweep of US history, with all its horrors, its anxieties, its potentialities. Her writing contests the deeply isolating structures of capitalism by imagining self and nation as “a collaborative condition,” one that must be endlessly reconstructed and defended in the face of xenophobia, sexual violence, economic ruin, social anomie, and political disintegration. This is Tracy K. Smith’s America, a lyric insurrection within Donald J. Trump’s.

Wade in the Water begins with the “desolate luxury” of the ironically titled “Garden of Eden.” It is set in “the dawning century” of the neoliberal universe, where everything is a market; the speaker is a thirtysomething New Yorker scraping out a life in the long tail of the Great Recession, a specter that looms over many poems in the collection. Leaving therapy, she feels a “profound longing” for the grocery store, which becomes a sort of temple where spiritual and aesthetic desire mix (“The glossy pastries! / Pomegranate, persimmon, quince!”), even though the ultimate act is to be a good consumer and buy things. Purchasing food, however, leaves the speaker anxious:

It was Brooklyn. My thirties.
Everyone I knew was living
The same desolate luxury,
Each ashamed of the same things:
Innocence and privacy.

It feels like an empire’s end: “The known sun setting / On the dawning century,” as the last two lines go. Everyone hunkers down alone with their stuff, just as capitalism wants it.

Two vicious features of the system, which I’m hardly the first to note, are its enforcement of rigid hierarchies (think about the racial pay gap, for example) and its wholesale razing of the biospheric life-support systems that allow civilization to exist in the first place. Smith mingles these themes in “The World is Your Beautiful Younger Sister,” where the body of a woman stands in for the planet itself; Smith plays on old Western conceptions of nature as a female resource to be commanded by men and their technologies. “Men with interests to protect” seduce and extract pleasure from a young person, “making her believe / / It was she who gave permission,” just as patriarchal industrial capitalism has “plundered” the “youth” of mother Earth.

“Those awful, awful men. The ones / Whose wealth is a kind of filth.” Lest this ecological connection seem like a stretch, know that environmental disaster haunts Wade in the Water. For instance, an entire “found poem” (Smith’s term) called “Watershed” comprises narratives of near-death experience juxtaposed with fragments from a New York Times story about a DuPont chemical disaster that poisoned an entire Ohio community. Capital exerts its violence against nature and the people who are part of it. Smith assembles a collage of bad news, omitting punctuation to create a sense of anxious acceleration:

dust vented from factory chimneys settled well-beyond the property line
entered the water table
concentration in drinking water 3x international safety limit
study of workers linked exposure with prostate cancer
worth $1 billion in annual profit

One of the closing lines is an eerie warning: “it’s global.” The world’s first great carbon empire, the United States, is committing suicide, but at least some people are getting richer.

The book’s center is “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It.” This long poem, divided into sections based on different voices, consists of material Smith culled from the letters of black Civil War veterans and their wives, children, siblings, and widows, many of whom wrote to President Lincoln asking for financial assistance, in many cases pay that was owed them. “I claim pension under the general law,” argues one appellant; “(i shall hav to send this with out a stamp / for I haint money enough to buy a stamp),” another says in closing his letter to the President (all italics and spellings original).

In an endnote Smith refers to such texts as “erasure poems,” a somewhat ironic term. Yes, these are black voices that have been effaced from history, buried in government archives and exhumed by a few scholars on whose work Smith draws. But the poet respectfully appropriates them, placing each within her linguistic universe, where things like line breaks and image patterns matter, and as such the erasure is partly undone. The dead speak.

The poem bores deep into the nation’s roots, back to the Civil War, which momentarily created opportunities for African Americans to participate in democracy as voters and officeholders, craftsmen and farmers, teachers and doctors; as free agents in America, not chattel. This was the shattered promise of Reconstruction, which collapsed under the weight of reactionary white politics (and outright terrorism) by the late 1870s. And before that, of course, there was the slave empire, a giant system for turning flesh into money. The United States’ expanding industrial wealth in the nineteenth century was inseparable from this machine; American capital has always been massed on the backs on nonwhite people.

These appellants use the lingo of capitalism, insofar as they are asking for money. But the point of material restitution isn’t to create new hoards of capital or to employ it in fresh exploitative ventures; rather, the money these people are owed for their service to what was once a Republic is a form of human acknowledgement, a way of saying that their lives mattered. “We poor oppressed ones,” one writes Lincoln, “appeal to you, and ask fair play.”

Arranged by Smith, these voices, often speaking in nonstandard English, become part of the American literary corpus. Smith works like a novelist, curating the national tongue. The last lines of the poem’s final section point this up with staggering intensity:

My full name is Dick Lewis Barnett.
I am the applicant for pension
on account of having served
under the name Lewis Smith
which was the name I wore before
the days of slavery were over—

My correct name is Hiram Kirkland.
Some persons call me Harry and others call me Henry
but neither is my correct name.

Like the letters themselves, Smith’s poem is restorative. The gesture of writing an appeal and appending one’s name to it parallels her lyric recuperations, because both replace capitalism’s terms (where individuals are parts of a vast machine dedicated to profit) with the changeable conditions of authentic selfhood, where every breath matters even if it produces nothing that can be monetized. Price and value, Smith reminds us, are not the same thing.

In a recent lecture published by the Washington Post, she calls poetry a “radically re-humanizing force,” one that “comes closest to bringing us into visceral proximity with the lives and plights of others.” She contrasts it with the “market-driven language” that divides everything into a brutal war of all against all and debilitates our minds:

I also, more and more, recognize its value as a remedy to the various things that have bombarded our lines of sight and our thought space, and that tamper with our ability or even our desire to listen to that deeply rooted part of ourselves. I’m talking about the many products, services, networks, trends, apps, tools, toys, as well as the drugs and devices for remedying their effects that are pitched to us nonstop: in our browser sidebars, in the pages of print media, embedded in movies and TV shows, on airplanes, in taxis and trains and even toilet stalls.

Capitalism is the enemy and the stakes are high, because “one of the only defenses against the degradations of our market-driven culture is to cleave to language that fosters humility, awareness of complexity, commitment to the lives of others and a resistance to the overly easy and the patently false.”

Embedded in all this is a specific conception of history. Not the liberal version, where everything naturally progresses toward a better reality, but something more ambiguous and fragile. “History is in a hurry,” runs “New Road Station. “It moves like a woman / Corralling her children onto a crowded bus.” It is, implicitly, formed out of lives meshed into communities and societies; in place of capitalism’s brutal sorting of human beings, Smith proposes another world. Comprehending, and perhaps steering, its history requires love amid the ruins.

“Unrest in Baton Rouge” underscores this. Inspired by a photograph taken during a Black Lives Matter protest after city police killed Alton Sterling, a black man, the poem imagines a confrontation between state power and another African American body. (Jonathan Bachman’s renowned shot shows two policemen in body armor arresting a woman named Ieshia Evans; the black-clad officers whip out their handcuffs for no discernible reason as Evans stands in silent dignity, wearing a long dress.)

Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?

Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else

Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?

This view of history as contested territory is in turn based on a tentatively hopeful view of selfhood in which all is intersubjective. We are not the isolated commodity seekers that capitalism and its armed enforcers demand we become, but rather “all of us must be / / Buried deep within each other” (“Eternity”). Each one of us is “a collaborative condition,” “The Everlasting Self” puts it.

Smith isn’t a political theorist, psychologist, historian, or polemicist, though her poetry metabolizes elements of those discourses. She does something trickier and more important: her work conjures up, with vivid particularity, at the level of the individual, what it is like to live under late capitalism. If capitalist institutions erase memory and sweep everything into an eternal present of consumption, poetry is a slow art with a long memory and an expansive capacity to imagine other worlds. As Auden supposedly said in conversation, you can’t half-read it. You pay attention because it wades in deep. And in this awful year, that’s something worth giving thanks for.

[1] The term “queasy questions” comes from John Self, the narrator of Martin Amis’s novel Money (1984).