Drafted into teaching Sunday school, the whole congregation praying for her chastity, a younger Tracy K. Smith wrote “God is not that small” over and over, killing time (or something else) until class ended. A prayer asks; an invocation summons. This seems to have belonged to the second category of religious gesture: a ritual description, loosing God from the mean beliefs of prudes. Reproduced only once in her new memoir Ordinary Light, the words leave an impression of certainty armed by clarity. It also leaves ambiguous what Smith felt — cool defiance? hot recrimination? — while setting about this task, of inscribing a schoolhouse penance with rebel energies.
God is not that small; emphasis hers. For all its elegance as a rejoinder, the sentence only draws a lower bound. Questions pour into the space left by negative definition: how large, then, is God? For that matter, what? Where does this presence fit into an adult life just starting to take shape? And God isn’t the only unknown: for x, substitute the soul, substitute death. At this point in her story, Smith has only the religion she’s grown out of — a shelter built of prohibitions, watched by an omnipotent, father-shaped deity — and the impulse to put pen to paper.
Her searching stitches together the memories collected in Ordinary Light. It threads through the discrete, self-contained episodes of the first half — she visits her grandmother in Alabama, hatches quail chicks, watches wide-eyed as a cousin traces “motherfuck” into the dust — and binds them to the narrative of the second. As Smith leaves her Christian, Californian upbringing for university on the East Coast, her mother is diagnosed with cancer. Discovering literature, politics, sex, the college-aged Smith averts her eyes from the specter of impending tragedy; it swells; she and her siblings are called home for their goodbyes.
“Sometimes,” Smith writes, “I tried to work it out in my head like a riddle: I am not a soul, but I possess one. When I die, I become what I possess.” The sneaky, oblique determinism of a logic game renders the form inadequate to loss — but then, there’s poetry, the grace of which lies in its ability to hold difficult ideas in equipoise; it can keep a conundrum’s walls from collapsing. After her mother dies, she finds herself returning to Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances:” “I thought of walking round and round a space / Utterly empty, utterly a source.” She wonders aloud, “What did it mean to be both empty and a source? Was there something I housed or might one day house?” Smith teaches at Princeton; in these passages, she retraces her steps toward the center of the sonnet’s mysterious power, its resonance beyond reason. It’s a kind of reenactment for our benefit, and one of the book’s many gifts: she parses these lines such that we grow with her, as a reader.
In those years, of course, she was also growing into the poet who would win a Pulitzer for Life on Mars, in part an elegy for her father, an engineer who worked for the air force, in 1980s Silicon Valley, and on the Hubble Telescope — in an era when, as she describes it, “Technology was public.” From the central lyric dedicated to him, “The Speed of Belief,” the poems expand outward. They map their subjects — outer space, God, current events — as public, pop ideas, vintage postcards from the collective imagination. The opening poem, “The Weather in Space,” asks, “Is God being or pure force? The wind/ Or what commands it?” Later, “Cathedral Kitsch” gives the interrogative an ironic edge: “Does God love gold?/ Does He shine back/ at Himself from walls/ Like these, leafed/ In the earth’s softest wealth?” But the questions are no less real for being rhetorical. These poems say: leave the devil his details. God lives comfortably in line breaks and double-spacing, in enjambments, between if/ands, neither/nors — even in, as “It & Co.” suggests, a failed shorthand: “How can It be anything but an idea,/ Something teetering on the spine/ Of the number i?” Smith concludes, “It is like some novels:/ Vast and unreadable.” Smith nominates Charlton Heston and Ziggy Stardust as emissaries of the beyond, and they descend, puckish and melancholy, as embodied spoofs of man’s need to view Creator as character.
As it too becomes a meditation on the lapses in language, Ordinary Light takes up the other end of the telescope; its concerns are personal rather than public. Combing through her coming-of-age, Smith sorts the unexpressed from the inexpressible, the blank space on the page from the quiet across the dinner table. She assembles a field guide to silences and their keeping — “an articulate variety of wordlessness” that avoids confrontation. The children sidestep topics that might expose political difference, and hide their romantic relationships and broken hearts. Their parents don’t admit to the seriousness of the disease. Craving reassurance, Smith never asks the most direct and difficult questions about how her mother feels. Only when she commits the reality to paper, writing “My mother is dying” in a letter petitioning the dean for permission to drop a literary theory course, does she accept it.
It’s not surprising that Smith writes about how, after the funeral, she took shelter in those she calls her “necessary poets” — but family and friends, her fellow bereaved, have a more immediate and urgent presence. Smith fights with her father, and confides in her sister, Jean; she walks with old friends, other motherless women, and together they try to articulate their hopes about heaven. We get only glimpses of these moments — the exact exchanges either have been lost, or are deliberately obscured. Instead, she charts the wake left by the words. She seems most interested in talk: a genre without form or discipline, that can match the mess of grief. Through sentences slung and stuttered, forced to double back and revise, people give and receive solace.
She admits: “I’d never spoken so freely or honestly with my mother.” That she never engaged with her mother about religion, never sounded out the dimensions of her changing faith together, is one of Smith’s enduring regrets. As with her read of the Heaney’s sonnet, each of her religious queries, taken alone, seems deceptively straightforward: “Is God each of the many different things we seek in the course of a life?” Smith asks. “Does God become an armament we leverage for the ones we love, the ones we have committed to nurture and protect?”
These questions, when laid out in prose, have none of the irradiated rigor of the poems in Life on Mars. They give way to each other effortlessly; there’s always room for one more. Poetry might be depthless; prose’s gift, it turns out, lies in plentitude, in creating a sense of ampleness. With Ordinary Light, Smith has written a book that speaks into past silence, one in which language is more than careful; it’s a form of caretaking.