A review of The Body’s Question: Poems by Tracy K. Smith

Her poems are unpretentious, intelligent and consistently arresting by their beauty and their honesty. This is another triumph for Graywolf Press which seems unable to publish any but distinguished books.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

The Body’s Question
by Tracy K. Smith
Graywolf Press 2003, ISBN 1-55597-391-4, $14.00, 85 pages

Smith is a skilled poet whose work consistently shows a careful tenderness for the exact proportions and the weight of words.

. . . the clay earth
Where Mario lay his Riena Isabel
Blessed ghost child
When her body let go its frail soul.

There is nothing hermetic in these poems and, although the respect for the word is consistent throughout, occasionally the poetic becomes prosaic. This is how she describes the feelings of an alien who seeks illegal entry into another land.

We crossed
On our bellies
I wonder
If we will ever stand up.

This is sententious although psychologically accurate. Psychological accuracy is vividly alive in these poems and is mostly free of the prosy. In the second section of poems (there is an introductory poem and many poems of various length – none of them very long – divided into five sections) she describes a boy swimming away from others.

The syllables of my name skip across like smooth stone,
And when they reach me, my lungs shrink to fists.
I flail upright and the waves lash out in my wake.

Meanings are often precise but sometimes they elude the obvious and find equivalents that flesh out the reality more fully than the grocery list method of conventional prose and – alas! – of much contemporary poetry.

When you close your eyes,
I know you are listening
To a dark chamber

Around a chord of light.
I know you are deciding
That the body’s a question

This is from ‘Joy,” the third section of the book, a commemoration of a dead mother. The form is worth noticing. It is roughly based on the concept of five words to the line, four can be accepted when the sound of the entire line is sufficiently heavy. This kind of subtle respect for form keeps her poetry whole as she ranges along the spectrum of her considerations.

Smith is the winner with The Body’s Question of the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. This is awarded to the best first collection of poems submitted by an African American poet.

Her poems are unpretentious, intelligent and consistently arresting by their beauty and their honesty. This is another triumph for Graywolf Press which seems unable to publish any but distinguished books.

For more information visit: The Body’s Question

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teto.com/service/Persons_Places

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