The poet Tracy K. Smith (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 collection Life on Mars) tells a rich coming-of-age story in her new memoir and first book of prose, Ordinary Light. The youngest of five children, raised in suburban California by Alabama-born, African-American parents, Smith in this book looks back at herself as a growing girl: at her dawning understanding of her parents’ youth, so different from her own, during the Civil Rights movement; at her mother’s devout Christianity, which allows her to accept her cancer diagnosis as part of God’s plan; at the pain of losing her mother too early; at her first moments of independence at Harvard and her desire to become a writer. In this passage, we meet Smith in the college library, where she makes a connection between her mother’s faith and language, and her development as a poet.
My mother’s language was always the language of the soul. But it grew clearer, more telegraphic, once the cancer began to accelerate her sense that she was on her way elsewhere. So much of the time, living with such knowledge, her mind must have been tuned to the idea of what awaited her: I go to prepare a place for you. If it were not so, I would have told you. In some strange way, the return to the soul state might simply be the answer to the prayer that sits behind every prayer: Deliver me. Is there another dialect of the soul, a way it speaks in those who don’t possess the vocabulary of belief? A way it stirs and surges as if to say Here I am, something we don’t hear but that we feel and, feeling, know.
I liked to sit in the leather armchairs facing the tall windows in Lamont Library. The windows looked out onto Mass Ave. at the intersection of Quincy Street, and when I’d glance up from my page, I’d see people I knew and people I didn’t know moving back and forth along the axes of their lives. The reading room silence would obliterate all the outside traffic noises, and the daylight would baptize the pedestrians, it seemed to me, in a kind of transparent splendor, as if for the few moments they appeared in frame, they were resplendent in the inviolable promise we were all of us born into. It didn’t matter if they were in a rush or a daze, if they coughed into their fists or if smoke streamed from their mouths. Each wore, for an instant if not more, a mantle of eminent belonging, as if the moment that held them was not a mistake, as if they were not lost or alone or under a heap of insurmountable dread. Here I am, something in them seemed to be saying to the pavement, the fallen leaves, to no one in particular.
I was taking a poetry workshop, my third so far at Harvard. In it, I had discovered that sitting down with an idea and letting it unfold in words and sounds offered me not just pleasure but an indescribable comfort. I wanted to write the kind of poetry that people read and remembered, that they lived by — the kinds of lines that I carried with me from moment to moment on a given day without even having chosen to. Back out of all this now too much for us, said Robert Frost, and when I heard his words in my ears, they gave weight and purpose to my footsteps, to the breath going in and out of my lungs; they gave me terms with which to consider bits and pieces of the things I otherwise didn’t know how to acknowledge. Frost’s voice telling me to retreat (at least that’s part of what I heard in that line, hovering in space on its own, apart from the rest of the poem or even the rest of its sentence) emboldened me to admit that, yes, I was overwhelmed. My mother’s cancer overwhelmed me. Her death, waiting out there in the distance, overwhelmed me. So did the loneliness I still sometimes felt, even amid the chatter and bustle of friends and classes.
Perhaps without realizing it, I, like my mother long before she belonged to me, had been seeking something. I was searching. Not for any one thing in particular, and not as a result of a single glaring lack, but seeking — searching — nonetheless.
Poetry met my particular sense of need. Writing a poem, I sometimes felt like I was building a house from scratch, raising the walls, hanging the doors, laying out the rooms. It felt at times like backbreaking work. Other times, it seemed that what I was trying to evoke or encounter in a poem was already alive somewhere and that my job was merely to listen. The language of each of the poetry workshops I’d taken was built upon the assumption that there really was something else at play. My teachers talked about our poems as if they were sentient beings with plans and wishes of their own, wishes it was up to us to carry into language. “Your poem seems to be leading you in one direction, but you insist upon going in another.” Or, “Try and cut out all this noise so you can hear what the poem is trying to tell you.” It sounded quite nearly mystical, like we were playing at divination, but it also rang true. Wasn’t it strange that a poem, written in my vocabulary and as a result of my own thoughts or observations, could, when it was finished, manage to show me something I hadn’t already known? Sometimes, when I tried very hard to listen to what the poem I was writing was trying to tell me, I felt the way I imagined godly people felt when they were trying to discern God’s will. “Write this,” the poem would sometimes consent to say, and I’d revel in a joy to rival the saints’ that Poetry — this mysterious presence I talked about and professed belief in — might truly be real.
Often, that spring, I found myself sitting in a reading room window with a book I ought to have been reading for class, but I also always had a black sketchbook into which I’d begun writing lines of my own. Sometimes, I wrote the same stanza over and over until something was unlocked and I could move forward. Once or twice, I’d stopped mid-poem, altogether stumped, and started a letter to myself in which I’d describe whatever it was I was having trouble getting into language: What does it mean to slog through the weight of the everyday, to wake to anxiety, to spend the day straining to hear what they must be saying now that you’re out of earshot, to have to put on the boots, though you’re tired, always tired, and just keep going? Sometimes all of the watching and listening and waiting finally gave way to a poem:
The Ordinary Life
To rise early, reconsider, rise again later
to papers and the news. To smoke a few if time
permits and, second-guessing the weather,
dress. Another day of what we bring to it-
matters unfinished from days before,
regret over matters we’ve finished poorly.
Just once you’d like to start out early,
free from memory and lighter for it.
Like Adam, on that first day: alone
but cheerful, no fear of the maker,
anything his for the naming; nothing
to shrink from, nothing to shirk,
no lot to carry that wasn’t by choice.
And at night, no voice to keep him awake,
no hurry to rise, no hurry not to.