Book Review: The Body’s Question by Tracy K. Smith

After reading Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer-winning Life on Mars, I wondered if I would love her other work just as much. The answer? Yes, ecstatically so. Her first collection of poetry, The Body’s Question, published in 2003, is gorgeous. Smith writes poems I want to bed down into and stay. While Mars had a space and alienation theme, Question revels in the close-to-home and the sensation of lying beside one another. “The body is memory,” she writes in “Joy.”

The Body's Question by Tracy K. Smith (cover)In the introduction, Kevin Young talks about how much appetite – for the body, for language, for connection – runs through Smith’s poems, then goes on to quote “Self-Portrait as the Letter Y:”

You are pure appetite. I am pure
Appetite. You are a phantom
In that far-off city where daylight
Climbs cathedral walls, stone by stolen stone.
I am invisible here, like I like it.
The language you taught me rolls
From your mouth into mine
The way kids will pass smoke
Between them.

That love for language is present throughout. Of course, we should expect that a poet loves language, but there is something different in the way that she writes about it. It isn’t, “Oh, look at how much smarter I am about language,” but rather like, “The scale of language out there in the world, isn’t it so wonderful?”

When he comes, Mario asks
Oiste la lluvia? and it sounds so perfect
I ask him to say it again. Oiste la lluvia?
For rain so sudden it is love,
Hunger in a foreign language.
Rain that bathed the mangroves,
Coconut orchard, the clay earth
Where Mario lay his Reina Isabel
Blessed ghost child
When her body let go its frail soul.

““from “Niña Fantasma”

Do you hear the rain? Rain is the foreign language here, not the español. I really enjoyed the México undercurrent, the stories and dedications for the men she has met. They are not only border-crossing stories, but stories of the dancing, the music, and, “Where we left the girls we married“ (“Gospel: Manuel”).

What really got me though were the poems where she is no longer directly connected to that world. The longing and wallowing in memory felt so true: “We were souls together once“ (“Shadow Poem”). Smith writes so well about the late-night thoughts and scribblings that writers do, and how private it feels, how we feel strange about having someone lie so near while we do it. These words are not yet ready for anything but my own eyes and heart, we think. And even then…

It’s not that the lonely memories mean that writers do not value their present situation, it’s that retrospect and nostalgia are powerful intoxicants. Distance and language help us understand. The present? Well, it’s still too present. Give us a week, a year, a decade – then maybe we’ll make sense of it. Good and bad.

I am looking for my best words.
Willful things
That feint and dart.
If I find them, I will understand
The hunger that stirs us,
That settles like a weight
Pushing us
Into that vivid dark.

  • from “The Machinery of Evening”

I loved every poem in The Body’s Question, and I will want to read it again and again, to better understand and live within Tracy K. Smith’s words. Something within her work feels more open than other poets, though maybe I only think that because it’s a matter of my body and her body being tuned to the same frequency. To anti-intellectualize it, I borrow that oft-said Tumblr phrase: I know that feel, man. I know that feel.

While I metaphorically (and maybe someday, physically) shove this book into your hands, know that I am sincere.

Full Disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book. I thank them, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews. This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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