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The year 2017 was, I presume, an awkward, anxious moment to be named poet laureate of the United States. What the writer owes the collective and where she fits within it is a fraught question at the best of times, one subject to frequent border disputes. Yet Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, $24), Tracy K. Smith’s first collection since her appointment, considers the state of the union with characteristic grace.

Pomegranates, by Dana Zaltzman © The artist. Courtesy Zemack Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Smith begins at home. The opening poem, “Garden of Eden,” offers a portrait of the artist resting uneasy amid her upper-middle-class comforts. We are to see America and the world through the eyes of someone who goes to therapy and shops for high-end groceries:

It was Brooklyn. My thirties.
Everyone I knew was living
The same desolate luxury,
Each ashamed of the same things:
Innocence and privacy.

With that established, the book begins to crack itself open, letting in what innocence and privacy might allow you to keep out, as Smith’s more autobiographical poems make room for other voices. There’s an edit of the Declaration of Independence that ends,

We have reminded them of the circumstances
    of our emigration
    and settlement here.
    —taken Captive
          on the high Seas
               to bear—

There are poems constructed from letters by slaveholders and by African Americans fighting in the Civil War (“I will be hom next fall / if I live a soldier stand a bad chanc but if god spars me / I will be home”), and one that juxtaposes accounts of Muslim-American women attacked in the wake of the presidential election with oddly poetry-ready words published on the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website (“We want these people / To feel that everything around them is / Against them. . . . And we want them to be afraid”). Smith holds this chorus together quite beautifully, often embedding contrasting fragments of text and tone in classical forms and schemes.

Shame lingers, but often on a larger scale: Smith imagines the creatures and oceans and “epochs of rock” trembling when God creates man and, at the end of the book, pictures a bizarre postapocalyptic reprieve, in which long-vanished fauna return and “we wept to be reminded of such color”; she feels “ashamed, finally” of our own flashy creations, all the roads and “bridges slung with steel / Our vivid glass, our tantalizing lights.”

Abyssal Zone
Fauna and Flora, c. 1900, from the Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, published by Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig, Germany

Smith seems to want to show a country to itself, and a people — not just an American people, either. This can yield false notes (I could have done without the penis and rape metaphors in “A Man’s World” and “The World Is Your Beautiful Younger Sister,” respectively), but for the most part she is too attentive to overgeneralize. Some of the most striking poems here are the simplest, such as the incantatory “Ash,” which strips the human being to what it shares with other creatures and objects and places, as a “house that believes it is not a house”:

House of trick and suck and shrug.
Give-it-to-me house. I-need-you-baby house.
House whose rooms are pooled with blood.
House with hands. House of guilt. House
That other houses built. House of lies
And pride and bone. House afraid to be alone.

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