Tracy K. Smith’s exquisite memoir Ordinary Light primarily traces three narrative threads—her relationships with her mother, with religion, and with herself—which are all tied together by Smith’s discovery of poetry. Raised in a Baptist family, Smith struggled through much of her life to resolve the ever-growing conflict between the certainty of her mother’s beliefs and the ambiguity of the real world. She found a kind of happy medium with poetry and went on to publish three volumes of it, the latest of which, 2012’s Life on Mars, won a Pulitzer Prize.
Nothing especially remarkable happened to Smith in her life. Instead, it is Smith’s careful scrutiny of the circumstances of her life that draws the reader forward. For example, she writes beautifully but pointedly about navigating through her childhood as a black girl. Other kids would ask her, “Don’t you wish you were white?” or “Why don’t black girls like to get their hair wet?” or, in the case of one horrible boy on the bus after he ripped off her necklace, “Who do you think you are?” Smith wonders if this is “the kind of thing that happens whenever you’re black”:
Was it a mild, diluted version of what roamed about more brazenly in generations past? What about the other black kids at my school? Did they feel it? And if they did, why didn’t we ever talk about it? Were we afraid? Maybe it seemed shameful to admit that we lived in a world whose terms were defined by the people least like us. Was that a condition we in our silence had chosen? Was there even a choice to be made?
The circumstances of one’s struggles need not be exceptional for them to be harrowing. These questions—and many more like them—are vital, and they speak to the experiences of people of color. Smith skillfully extrapolates her piercing quandaries into something larger without making any claims of doing so.
Smith is equally sharp on literature. In college she reads Invisible Man and she realizes a vital fact about reading and empathy, that “listening to a protagonist is easier than listening to a person speaking in the flesh, even if the two might be saying the exact same thing.” In fiction, a protagonist can come at her with complex and difficult emotions, but in real life, those same sentiments would affect her viscerally:
...my esophagus would tighten, my temples would flush, and my heartbeat would thump louder in my ears. I’d retreat, too ashamed and too guilty to stand there listening to what the world had insisted, again and again, upon doing to a person with skin hued like my own.
But on the page, Invisible Man transcended mere storytelling, and for Smith “it was about realizing I was capable of opening my eyes and ears in such a way as to accept the truth of what I was reading and admit the pain.” She also thoughtfully considers the motivations of Phillis Wheatley, the slave who wrote commendatory poetry for her masters and who was the first published African American woman: “What if the language Wheatley had adopted had also gotten inside of her? What if she believed when she said, 'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too? Would that make her less worthy of our attention?”
Smith’s poetry often deals with similar themes: race, God, the ambiguity of all things. The opening line of the opening poem in Life on Mars reads: “Is God being or pure force?” In Ordinary Light, Smith retains her poet’s skill for detail, for penetrating inquisition, but lacks a bit of her poet’s economy. Some of the sections, though beautifully written, don’t add to the whole of the book, and could have probably been cut entirely, while other parts are too often written in the form of a series of questions, which read less smoothly the more they are asked. Stephen King once marveled at Mary Karr’s “totality,” saying she’s someone who “remembers everything about her early years.” The same is true of Smith, not so much in the way of conversation and details (though she recalls plenty of those) but in her own thinking. She seems so able to record her inner thoughts as a kid that it sometimes stretches credulity. Take this moment, when Smith’s mother tries to explain to her five-year-old daughter that Halloween’s imagery celebrates the occult:
I sensed that she was torn. She wanted to make me understand the bigger picture, but she also wanted to make me happy. She was most concerned, I’d guess, with the symbolism of a night like Halloween, the things our costumes and make-believe fright seemed to glorify. But she also understood that a single night of trick-or-treating could have had heavy implications for my everlasting soul.
Clearly, in a passage like this one, it is the older, wiser Smith articulating these thoughts, not the five-year-old in the ghost costume. (This “ghost” costume looks uncannily like a KKK hood, which leads to some pretty uncomfortable moments out in the neighborhoods.)
Mostly, though, Ordinary Light is a fascinating read, a luminous, insightful work on what it means to be a black woman in America, to be a daughter, to be a poet, to be a human being in a vast universe. “I am searching,” Smith writes, and it is our good fortune that she allows us to be part of the journey.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.