This year the US Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, accepted an extension of her term until 2019 in order to continue her dialogue with rural communities of the South and Southwest. As well as hosting public events, Smith will visit aged communities and groups of young people dealing with depression and anxiety. Although it is, as several sources reported, unusual for a poet laureate to release a book during term, Wade in the Water was published in April and it serves as a companion piece for her role. Wade in the Water is Smith’s fourth collection and follows the Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars (2011). A Selected Poems is forthcoming in 2019, and will include poems from earlier works The Body’s Question (2003) and Duende (2007).
The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, appointed annually by the Librarian of the United States Congress, was first named in 1937. Since 1937, a number of poets have accepted the position of being their country’s national poet. The first African-American poet appointed, Rita Dove, in 1993, was also proclaimed the first ‘political activist’ of the laureates. For those of us grown up in families of oppressed races, what is poetry but activism? Many reviewers are describing Wade in the Water as a first for Smith, with its sharp focus on Civil War history, and pressing current racial concerns. Smith herself reflected on this in an interview earlier this year, ‘I had to say to myself, “I haven’t written enough about blackness, yet it’s part of my consciousness and my lived experience”’.
Smith’s father grew up in Alabama in the 1930s and escaped the segregated South by enlisting in the Air Force, later working as an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA, which Smith writes about in Life on Mars. Smith had a middle class 1970s childhood in Fairfield, California. Life on Mars explored many ideas, from pop culture, to technology, Afrofuturism and grief (her father died during the writing of the book). If Life on Mars was about unease of the future, Wade in the Water is about unease of the past.
In the first poem ‘Garden of Eden’, Smith reflects on living in New York City where she completed her MFA and took up teaching positions in creative writing. It is a gentle entry into the book, the title coming from a gourmet grocery store Smith shopped in. ‘It was Brooklyn. My thirties/Everyone I knew was living/The same desolate luxury/Each ashamed of the same things.’.
The circumstantial religious imagery in the first section of the book foreshadows a deeper exploration of spirituality in the later sections. As told in her tender memoir Ordinary Light (2005) Smith gained her religious education from her mother, a deeply religious woman who lived with the black Church and the bible. ‘Garden of Eden’ would not seem out of place in Smith’s earlier collections, which display a characteristic knack of making the intimate and personal into universal memory through strong imagery. This collection, however extends to many other different voices outside Smith’s immediate circles, and is pulled by a sense of urgency to reveal what is undeniable in history’s lost pages.
For Smith, there were two events that shaped the political nature of this book: an invitation to contribute a poem to an exhibition of Civil War photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in 2011, and a research trip to coastal Georgia. At the book’s heart is a series of poems in the voices of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War and their families. This series is referred to by Smith as erasure poetry, a form of found poetry where a poet erases lines of existing text, creating a new work with what remains. Other poets use the related term documentary poetry or docupoetry to describe what Joseph Harrington defines as poetry that quotes from documents and relates to historical narratives.
To find the voices that shaped her understanding of the history of slavery, Smith read books with testimonials given after the war, and collected letters in the archive to use as found material. The poem by the National Portrait Gallery, ‘I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It’, at fourteen pages, is the centrepiece of the erasure poems. It feels as if Smith has shaped her book around it.
The text is entirely composed of letters and statements by African American Civil War soldiers and their families. The original spelling and punctuation has been maintained. Some letters are men and women writing directly to president Abraham Lincoln with requests for freedom, letters requesting pensions, others are spouse to spouse, or parent to child, revealing people at their most intimate and vulnerable.
I take my pen in hand to rite you A few lines
to let you know that I have not Forgot you
Weaving a chorus of voices, Smith’s erasure poems rove around questions of freedom and how people keep standing when their names have been changed, their families have been removed, and all of their dignity has been stripped away.
A few years after writing ‘I Will Tell You the Truth’, Smith visited the Geechee communities on the islands off Georgia. Former slaves purchased the land that they were previously enslaved in from the government and it was passed on through to the current generation. The isolation of the islands allowed the community to hang on to a cultural practice unique to the United States, rooted in ceremony, language and music of West African tradition.
The title poem of Wade in the Water is Smith describing the experience of witnessing a Geechee ring shout – a common form of worship – and having one of the performers approach her and tell her she loved her. For Smith, who has said ‘I sometimes feel anxious in the South because I don’t know what my role is’, this moment was an invitation, and a healing.
I love you in the water
Where they pretended to wade
Singing that old blood-deep song
That dragged us to those banks
And cast us in.
The book’s title echoes the slave spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’. The song had a hidden meaning: to remind slaves planning an escape to go into the water to mask their scent from the chasing bloodhounds.
In November last year the New Republic published an essay by Rachel Stone on the recent boom in erasure poetry, offering insights into why the current political climate has led to a popularity around the form. Poets have certainly used Trump’s Inauguration Speech and other transcripts to satirical effect. Finnish poet Niina Pollari turned the problematic and impenetrable application form to become a naturalised U.S. citizen into an erasure poem ‘Form N-400 Erasures’ that looks like a painting. The few remaining words like ‘total’ and ‘terror’ carry great weight.
In these feverish times, perhaps poets like Smith are seeking to take on more responsibility as social advocates. This is her Trump-era collection.
Three collections by Aboriginal poets published by Cordite Books in the last three years use primary sources as a way to respond to dominant narratives, to violence and erasure, and to recuperate unacknowledged pasts.
One of the recommendations of the Bringing them Home report (1997) was to ‘assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people separated from their families under past laws, practices and policies of Australian governments, to undertake family tracing and reunion initiatives’. Information past denied to Indigenous Australians began to become available, the government funded national Link-Up organisations, and institutions such as State Libraries endeavoured to make records accessible. It was during that time that Narungga woman and activist-poet Dr Natalie Harkin accompanied her grandmother to an answer-seeking visit to Link-Up South Australia.
‘[O]ur Link-Up Case Worker presented us with an almost two-inch-thick, ring-bound file; the unexpected shock-representation of Nanna’s life recorded under the Aboriginal Protection Board and the State Children’s Welfare Department, between the years 1938 to 1947,’ Harkin writes in her thesis exegesis ‘“I Weave Back To You”: Archival-Poetics for the record’ (2016).
Her state-filed life was replete with lies and imperial colonialist misrepresentations essentialising everyone she loved. She was rarely named, but was quite simply their ‘Girl’. Their: ‘State Child’, ‘half-cast’, ‘quadroon’, ‘octoroon’, ‘true to type’, ‘of her own kind’…
As I read Harkin, I recalled my Aunty commenting that we are the most ‘documented race on earth’. Documents like these have been archived to our detriment – and later to our advantage as we reassemble the pieces. There are many ways Aboriginal poets choose to use these sources.
In her 2015 poetry collection Dirty Words Harkin references her found material as ‘evidence’, knowing too well that for whitefellas ‘official’ sources present the best case, and anything in writing is authorial. Each of these evidence-based poems begin with a letter of the alphabet. In ‘Domestic’, the ‘evidence’ is the ‘South Australian Royal Commission on the Aborigines, 1913’ and an article in the Australian Woman’s Mirror in 1926, titled ‘The Ways of the Abo Servant’, describing the domestic enslavement of Aboriginal girls and women and the dehumanising language used to represent them.
Harkin’s current ‘archival-poetic’ research is on Aboriginal women’s domestic service and labour histories in South Australia. This slavery system benefitted white Australians and continuously denied the experiences of Indigenous women and girls. The 2016 documentary Servant or Slave, directed by Steven McGregor and written and produced by Hetti Perkins and Mitchell Stanley, maps this experience through the stories of five women. Documentary shares many techniques with docupoetry, weaving voices and sources, and privileging powerful first-person accounts next to official records and facts. In the early decades of this century, a number of Indigenous-authored documentaries were made, including First Australians, that attempted to tell long-denied truths about this country.
Like Harkin, whose sources in other poems in Dirty Words include Tony Abbott, Andrew Bolt and co, Wiradjuri writer and academic Dr Jeanine Leane references Keith Windschuttle, Barry Spurr and John Howard in her 2017 collection Walk Back Over. Leane’s ‘Colour of Massacre’ writes back to Howard’s terrorising History Wars’ exhortation to ‘shake off that irksome black arm band’, and encourages readers the look at the undeniable truths as they shape a self-understanding of Australia’s history. Unlike Harkin, Leane doesn’t reference her sources, rather trusting the quotes are recognisable. Leane’s collection is about what is not in the history books, and her poetry is both a truth-telling and a writing back.
Leane and Harkin demonstrate what Derrida calls le mal d’archive or ‘archive desire’, a mania and obsession with deciding what is in the archive and what’s out. Writes Harkin, ‘I remember… my hunger for our missing narrative was whetted, strong.’ For Leane, it’s also about broadening definitions and showing how her people keep their own archive. In her poem, ‘River Memory’ about the Murrumbidgee River, for example, she describes the water source as a deep natural archive, maintained by hundreds of generations.
In Broken Teeth (2016) Koori writer Dr Tony Birch draws on his work as an historian, gathering poignant letters by Aboriginal women in Victoria that assert personal freedom, ask for access to children and family, and request other assistance. In Birch’s docupoetry, Koori voices are woven together and unattributed, such as in ‘Footnote to a History War (archive box no. 2)’:
we are broken into parts
our home left in the wind
&. it grows colder here
my wife is aborigine
I am half-caste
and I am, Sir, dutifully yours
Broken Teeth writes an archival Coranderrk in lists, objects and people. As the figure of Coranderrk leader William Barak pulses through several poems, these scraps of stories, these footnotes of history form a new posture, a new pose.
At the back of Smith’s collection, a lengthy ‘Notes’ section lists the names of about hundred letter-writers whose correspondence makes up the found material in her erasure poems. An erasure poet or docupoet is working on the edge of inclusion and exclusion, as they decide which documents, which words, and which voices find a poetic platform. In an interview with Vogue magazine, Smith spoke of poetry as a way to ‘bring voice to the unsayable, the untranslatable’. In a translator role her choices bring up interesting questions about the social role of poetry, and whether giving voice to the voiceless can also be exploitative.
Later poems in the collection include a suite of family snapshots: ‘In Your Condition’, ‘41/2’, ‘Dusk’, ‘Urban Youth’ shine, as Smith describes being a mother, sister and daughter. There are undertones of her dealing with her middle class black privilege, especially juxtaposed against poems about Sudanese refugee children. At only seventy-three pages, Wade in the Water feels too slight to match its ambitious vision. It is Smith’s smallest volume so far, and the reader could have comfortably digested a further twenty pages, giving the many ideas in the book more space. Smith’s biggest achievement in Wade in the Water is her effort to stay true to all the different music she heard through writing the book and to reflect that in the sound of this book. The book is a gathering, and a chorus.