Scorching, Sophisticated New Work From Two Of America’s Leading Poets

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“Wade in the Water” is pinned together by a suite of found poems that employ near-verbatim the letters and statements of African-American Civil War veterans and their families.

These historical poems have a homely, unvarnished sort of grace. One is based on a soldier’s letter — Smith maintains the original spellings — and includes these words:

Sir We the members of Co D of the 55th Massechusetts vols

Call the attention of your Excellency to our case —

for instant look & see

that we never was freed yet

Run Right out of Slavery

In to Soldiery & we

hadent nothing atall &

our wifes & mother most all of them

is aperishing all about & we

all are perishing our self

Another found poem is based on survivors’ accounts and journalism about the DuPont company’s dumping of hazardous wastes in Appalachia.

Photo
Tracy K. Smith Credit Rachel Eliza Griffiths

This volume is not entirely a ticket on a doom-bound train. There are poems about the poet’s childhood and her own children. Quotidian delights are sampled. In one, on a long flight, the poet “snuck a wedge of brie, and wept / Through a movie starring Angelina Jolie.”

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“Wade in the Water” is Smith’s first collection since “Life on Mars,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. If this new book lacks some of the range and depth and allusiveness of that earlier book, well, she has battened down certain hatches.

The most memorable lines in “Life on Mars” were perhaps these, and they linger too over Smith’s new book:

The worst thing you can imagine has already

Zipped up its coat and is heading back

Up the road to wherever it came from.

In 2018, you are nobody without an acronym. If Smith, America’s PLOTUS, has a new book out, so does PEONY — that is, the poetry editor of The New Yorker. Kevin Young is still relatively new in that influential position; he is also the director of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

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These poets are friends. They attended Harvard two years apart. Young wrote the introduction to Smith’s first book of poems, “The Body’s Question” (2003). They are very different writers.

Young is a maximalist, a putter-inner, an evoker of roiling appetites. As a poet of music and food, his only rival is Charles Simic. His love poems are beautiful and sexy and ecstatic.

He mostly wears his politics lightly but regularly sinks hooks into you that cannot easily be removed. His book of selected poems, “Blue Laws” (2016), is as indispensable as any volume this decade. It is a delivery system for many varieties of complicated and uncomplicated joy.

Young produces so much that his audience can become stupefied. He writes books of cultural criticism, edits anthologies and composes so much poetry that he sometimes issues what he calls outtakes and remixes from earlier work.

Keeping up with him is like trying to keep up with Bob Dylan or Prince in their primes. Even the bootlegs have bootlegs. His manic-impressive productivity can lead to soft spots in his work, which is why “Blue Laws,” a judicious paring down, is so valuable.

Young’s new book, “Brown,” is vital and sophisticated without surpassing anything he’s done before. It’s a solid midcareer statement.

A few of its poems are explicitly political. One is about Trayvon Martin; another is titled “A Brown Atlanta Boy Watches Basketball on West 4th. Meanwhile, Neo-Nazis March on Charlottesville, Virginia.”

Photo
Kevin Young Credit Melanie Dunea/CPi

Young has long been investigating the lives, art and lingering meanings of black cultural figures. He seems to know everything and everyone. Playlists and bookstore receipts and theater stubs and archive call slips seem to spill from his pockets. Indeed, he once referred to what he called “my magpiety.”

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In this book there are excellent poems that name-check or investigate more closely people like Lead Belly, Tracy Chapman, Hank Aaron, the painter Jacob Lawrence and the jazz guitarist Charlie Christian. One poem is titled, after the rapper, “Ode to Ol Dirty Bastard.”

Other poems in this book revisit the author’s childhood in the Midwest: dodgeball games, RC Cola, Atari, wrestling coaches, health teachers and casual and not-so-casual racism.

Young evokes his “baby dreads, tortoiseshells, tight fade.” He cannot help but be a poet of micro-felicities. Watching Arthur Ashe on television, he observes:

Your hair a microphone cover

to help keep

the static down.

“We were black then, about to be / African American,” he writes about his school days, before adding that he and his friends had

given the campus cops the slip

whenever they quizzed or frisked us

for studying while black.

The key to a certain kind of songwriting, it’s been said, is to deliver blues in the verse and gospel in the chorus. There’s not a lot of gospel in these two books — just a strong, wary sense of watching and waiting.

Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.

Wade in the Water

Poems

By Tracy K. Smith

83 pages. Graywolf Press. $24.

Brown

Poems

By Kevin Young

Photographs by Melanie Dunea

Illustrated. 161 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.

A version of this review appears in print on April 17, 2018, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Standing Watch With Wary Words. Today's Paper|Subscribe

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Source : https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/16/books/review-wade-in-water-tracy-k-smith-brown-kevin-young.html

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