Like a dark star. I want to last.
from “Flores Woman”
Tracy K. Smith is perhaps one of the most recognizable names in contemporary American poetry. Smith is the author of four previous poetry collections, including Life on Mars, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Smith also served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019. With the release of Such Color from Graywolf Press, Tracy K. Smith brings together some of the most powerful poems from her previous collections alongside a small collection of new poems. Together these new and selected poems serve as a breathtaking reminder of Smith’s talent and contribution to the genre.
Such Color is arranged chronologically, housing poems from each of Smith’s previous books in titled sections. This is an effective choice, as it allows readers who are new to Smith’s work the ability to enter her body of work from the beginning. Even if readers choose not to read the sections in order, each one is grouped such that readers can experience the deliberate cohesion which permeates each book. Smith is an expert at developing complex themes across the breadth of individual collections, and those themes develop equally well through the selections chosen for Such Color.
One of the most challenging elements of books which celebrate multiple collections is demonstrating variety while maintaining a concrete sense of voice and fluidity. Such Color does this masterfully. The section from The Body’s Question, for example, opens with a “Something Like Dying, Maybe,” which offers a speaker who is tender and observant, but also keenly aware of the juxtaposition between individual moments and the traumas that surround them. The section includes numerous gospels to various men, all of which embrace elegy beautifully while also grounding the section in a distinct narrative.
Life on Mars is, for me, the most intriguing of the sections from previous collections. This comes as no surprise given the critical response to Life on Mars when it was released. The poems are tightly connected through the lens of our place in the universe. “Is God being or pure force? The wind/Or what commands it?” open the section in a haunting poem, “The Weather in Space,” which closes with an image of observers helpless and panicked in the face of a storm. “My God, It’s Full of Stars” presents a litany which bridges a relationship between father and daughter with the father’s work on the Hubble Telescope. The final section of the poem closes with the simple yet terrifying lines, “We saw to the edge of all there is–//So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.” This image echoes one of the elements I appreciate most in the poems from Life on Mars: the willingness to engage space as a living entity, something that is at once incomprehensible and animate.
Such Color closes with a section titled “Riot (New Poems).” The title foreshadows poems which are informed by the increasingly volatile and politicized climate in America. Several of the poems make effective use of repetition, showcasing the profound impact of subtle shifts in rhetoric. “A Suggestion” employs this technique masterfully, opening with a phrase written by Helen Plane, a Civil War widow who sought to memorialize the efforts of white supremacists during the war. As the poem progresses, the phrase morphs until it seems to come not from white supremacist sympathizers but those victimized by white supremacists. Here, Smith engages the debate over Southern monuments to the Civil War while showcasing her keen poetic skill. This section serves as an excellent reminder of the intersection between poetry and politics.
Ultimately, Such Color is a brilliant introduction to Smith’s career for readers who may be less familiar with her previous books. But it is also an effective celebration of that career for longtime fans of Smith’s work. Each section feels fresh and poignant in the immediate moment. It is a collection which solidifies Smith as one of the most talented writers in American poetry, a writer who is sure to continue crafting remarkable verse for years to come.
I adore her poetry! Life on Mars is one my favorite poetry books, in fact I’ve recently started reading it again.