Tracy K. Smith has had a successful career as a poet: her first two collections, The Body’s Question and Duende (Graywolf, 2003 and 2007), won major awards, and she began teaching at Princeton following her first book. When Life on Mars (Graywolf, 2011), her third collection, won the Pulitzer Prize, Smith skyrocketed to a level of fame that transcends the insular world of poetry—making now the perfect time for her to publish a book in prose. This month, Knopf publishes Smith’s fourth book, a memoir, Ordinary Light.
Ordinary Life begins with a harrowing scene at the deathbed of Smith’s mother, who died in 1994. From there it circles back to Smith’s early childhood, tracing her growth not just as a writer, but as someone who must learn the hard lessons of puberty and early adulthood, as well as what it means to be a black woman growing up in suburban California. Her discovery of poetry is part of this, but the most remarkable moments in this book are the ones in which Smith deals with ordinary trials, which she treats with rare insight and heart.
How long does grief take? Perhaps it takes a lifetime, in which case the real question is, how long does it take to begin? In two other recent grief memoirs (perhaps not coincidentally also by poets, for whom death is a perennial subject), grief hits hard and rapidly turns into writing—The Long Goodbye (Riverhead, 2011), by Meghan O’Rourke, and The Light of the World (Grand Central, April), by Elizabeth Alexander. In those books, the loss of a loved one—O’Rourke’s mother and Alexander’s husband—spurs a frenzy of pain, contemplation, and reevaluation. Both are transformative books that take a hard look at how grief plays out in contemporary America.
Smith is after something very different: her mother had been dead for several years when she wrote the first drafts of what would become Ordinary Light, and it was nearly 20 years before she began writing the book in earnest. This is not a chronicle of the shock of loss. Rather, it is a celebration of Smith’s life, lived in the thrall of a powerful, charismatic mother; it’s a chronicle of a big family with five children, and a story of coming of age amid deep and abiding love.
Though it opens with a deathbed scene, Ordinary Light sees Smith’s mother’s final moments as “the kind of miracle we never let ourselves consider, the miracle of death,” which opens the way to memory.
Smith was the youngest child in her family by almost a decade. Her mother was a teacher and then a homemaker, and her father was an engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope. The sense of being part of a tight-knit community within the household pervades the book and is one of its great pleasures: the reader feels invited to this love-filled home. Smith’s mother was passionately religious, especially after being diagnosed with cancer, and she tried to raise Smith as a Christian.
It took decades for Smith to finish the book, and she says it has its roots in much earlier work, from the years just after her mother died: “I tried to write some personal essays, some of which became the core of certain chapters in [Ordinary Life], as long ago as 1998. I just couldn’t finish them. I was kind of gripped with the same anxiety I had with the poems that I was writing at the time. The poems were trying to resolve this situation, which I later realized was an unresolvable thing. I didn’t have the proper distance.”
If pressed, many poets will admit that they have files of prose buried somewhere in their hard drives, which rarely turn into finished books. Smith was no different. “It was a secret project,” she says. “I never felt like I had to finish it. I would start something else.”
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SOURCE: Publishers Weekly
Craig Morgan Teicher