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Wade in the Water

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Shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize
Finalist for the Forward Prize for Best Collection

The extraordinary new poetry collection by Tracy K. Smith, the Poet Laureate of the United States

Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else

Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?

We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.

Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.

—from “Unrest in Baton Rouge”

In Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith boldly ties America’s contemporary moment both to our nation’s fraught founding history and to a sense of the spirit, the everlasting. These are poems of sliding scale: some capture a flicker of song or memory; some collage an array of documents and voices; and some push past the known world into the haunted, the holy. Smith’s signature voice—inquisitive, lyrical, and wry—turns over what it means to be a citizen, a mother, and an artist in a culture arbitrated by wealth, men, and violence. Here, private utterance becomes part of a larger choral arrangement as the collection widens to include erasures of The Declaration of Independence and the correspondence between slave owners, a found poem comprised of evidence of corporate pollution and accounts of near-death experiences, a sequence of letters written by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, and the survivors’ reports of recent immigrants and refugees. Wade in the Water is a potent and luminous book by one of America’s essential poets.

ISBN-13: 9781555978365

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Graywolf Press

Publication Date: 03-26-2019

Pages: 96

Product Dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

Tracy K. Smith is the author of three previous poetry collections, including Life on Mars, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a memoir, Ordinary Light, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. She teaches at Princeton University.

Read an Excerpt



What a profound longing I feel, just this very instant,

Two slung themselves across chairs Once in my motel room. Grizzled,
I was worn down by an awful panic.
Of playing cards between them.
I dared not look, I glimpsed how one's teeth Were ground down almost to nubs.
Who bounce and roll with fearsome grace,
Think of the toil we must cost them,
Just those two that once and never Again for me since, though There are — are there? —
A proud tree in vivid sun, branches Swaying in strong wind. Rain Hurling itself at the roof. Boulders,
Does, lions in crouch. A rust-stained pipe Where a house once stood, which I Take each time I pass it for an owl.
My mother sat whispering with it At the end of her life While all the rooms of our house Filled up with night.


He comes down from the hills, from The craggy rock, the shrubs, the scrawny Live oaks and dried-up junipers. Down From the cloud-bellies and the bellies Of hawks, from the caracaras stalking Carcasses, from the clear, sun-smacked Soundlessness that shrouds him. From the Weathered bed of planks outside the cabin Where he goes to be alone with his questions.

The holy thinks Tiger,

He will surely take it out when you're alone And let it dangle between you like a locket on a chain.

Seeing her as seldom as you do, it doesn't change,
To smooth flat just thinking what they did,
Who offered to pay, to keep, the clan of them Lording it over the others like high school boys

And their kid brothers. Men with interests to protect,
Beam into their faces, watching her shoulders rise,
It was she who gave permission.
Those awful, awful men. The ones Whose wealth is a kind of filth.


There was still a here, but that's not where we were, continually turning our backs to something unseen, speaking with just our eyes, getting on with work. What was our work? Our doors wouldn't lock. We rigged them, hung windows with sheets that broadcast our secrets after dark. People with weapons crept like thieves through their own houses. How did we feel? Like a canary cramped in a cage? Or the cat dying to know what the bird tastes like, swatting the rungs day after day, though the little hinged door never gives? No one hid. No one ran like a dog through the street. The moon traced its slow arc through the sky, drifting in and out of clouds that harbored nothing.


More and more now we slip Into this tone of voice, the hush Of people talking about someone Who has just died, only No one has died. We might be Sisters, or old friends, or passengers On the road to the airport. Once I sat talking this way to a man I'd only just met, while dawn Floated up and turned all the white Hills flush. The momentary kind Of love two strangers share,

for the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters

One of the women greeted me.


He has

The greatest personal privation I have had to endure has been the want of either Patience or Phoebe — tell them I am never, if life is spared us, to be without both of them again.

— letter from Mary Jones to Elizabeth Maxwell regarding two of her slaves, 30 August 1849

And they appear unhappy themselves, no doubt From the trouble they have occasioned.
Without consulting us — Father, Mother,
Glad if we may have hope of the loss of trouble.
Many, many, very many times.

The whole country Will not come back

From the sale of parent And child. So far

As I can see, the loss Is great and increasing.

I know they have desired We should not know

What was for our own good,
Of all that has been done.

Character and moral conduct Will present. We have it in

Contemplation to wait and see.
Evil, then we must meet evil As best we can.


Neither do I think it would at all promote the slave's interest to liberate him in his present degraded state.

— letter from Mary Jones to Charles Colcock Jones, 24 November 1829

Much as I should miss the mother, I am Persuaded that we might come To some understanding about a change Of investment. I do not wish To influence you in the least degree Beyond your own convictions, nor To have you subjected to inconveniences

Carlisle, Pa. Nov 21 1864

Mr abarham lincon I wont to knw sir if you please whether I can have my son relest from the arme he is all the subport I have now his father is Dead and his brother that wase all the help I had he has bean wonded twise he has not had nothing to send me yet now I am old and my head is blossaming for the grave and if you do I hope the lord will bless you and me tha say that you will simpethise withe the poor he be long to the eight rigmat colard troops he is a sarjent mart welcom is his name

Benton Barracks Hospital, St. Louis, Mo. September 3 1864

My Children

I take my pen in hand to rite you A few lines to let you know that I have not Forgot you be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life on the 28th of the month 8 hundred White and
Camp Nelson, Ky. November 26 1864

The morning was bitter cold.

It was freezing hard. I was certain it would kill my sick child to take him out in the cold. I told the man in charge of the guard that it would be the death of my boy.

I told him that my wife and children had no place to go and that I was a soldier of the United States.
did not get up into the wagon he would shoot the last one of them. My wife carried her sick child in her arms.
with her little one was poorly clad. I followed as far as the lines. At night I went in search.
by the soldiers. They had not received a morsel of food during the whole day.
my family in the Meeting house —
Nashville, Tenn. Aug 12th 1865

Dear Wife,

I am in earnis about you comeing and that as Soon as possible

It is no use to Say any thing about any money for if you come up here which I hope you will it will be all wright as to the money matters

I want to See you and the Children very bad I can get a house at any time I will Say the word So you need not to fear as to that So come wright on just as Soon as you get this

I want you to tell me the name of the baby that was born Since I left

I am your affectionate Husband untill Death

Belair, Md. Aug 25th 1864

Mr president It is my Desire to be free to go to see my people on the eastern shore my mistress wont let me you will please let me know if we are free and what i can do

Excellent Sir My son went in the 54th regiment

Sir, my husband, who is in Co. K. 22nd Reg't U.S. Cold Troops
for instant look & see that we never was freed yet Run Right out of Slavery In to Soldiery & we hadent nothing atall &
i am willing to bee a soldier and serve my time faithful like a man but i think it is hard to bee poot off in such dogesh manner as that

Will you see that the colored men fighting now are fairly treated. You ought to do this,
So Please if you can do any good for us do it in the name of God

Excuse my boldness but pleas —
I have nothing more to say hoping that you will lend a listening ear to an umble soldier

I will close

Yours for Christs sake

(i shall hav to send this with out a stamp for I haint money enough to buy a stamp)


Excerpted from "Wade In The Water"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Tracy K. Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Garden of Eden 5

The Angels 6

Hill Country 8

Deadly 10

A Man's World 11

The World Is Your Beautiful Younger Sister 12

Realm of Shades 13

Driving to Ottawa 14

Wade in the Water 15


Declaration 19

The Greatest Personal Privation 20

Unwritten 23

I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All about It 24

Ghazal 38


The United States Welcomes You 41

New Road Station 42

Theatrical Improvisation 43

Unrest in Baton Rouge 46

Watershed 47

Political Poem 54


Eternity 59

Ash 62

Beatific 63

Charity 64

In Your Condition 65

41/2 66

Dusk 68

Urban Youth 70

The Everlasting Self 71

Annunciation 72

Refuge 73

An Old Story 75

Notes 77

Acknowledgments 83