Ordinary Light: A memoir

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All That We Love

“Maybe I [felt] a shift in responsibility when I had kids. I wanted the work I was doing, whatever it was, to be something that could be meaningful to them one day. That’s where the germ of the memoir came from. I thought that perhaps writing about my parents and where I came from would one day be helpful for my kids.” For Guernica, Christopher Kondrich interviews Tracy K. Smith about writing a memoir, the presence of David Bowie in her Life on Mars, and her reverence for the cosmic. Also check out Sophia Nguyen’s Millions review of Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light.

A Year in Reading: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Last year my mother died. Often, my habit and love for reading felt unbearable and foreign. Other weeks it was reading alone that comforted me. It was all I wanted to do, all I was capable of doing, because all I wanted was to live inside of sentences, stanzas, stories. I didn’t and couldn’t go out there, the world was glaring in its surface of sameness, but books were ultimately part of the company that drew me out of a space that was dangerous, expanding in its withdrawal and silence.

In 2015, I also had a book of my own published. And, honestly, it was difficult to navigate a space that suddenly felt inarticulate to me. Kind friends and kind strangers alike sent me specific titles regarding grief. I also consumed books where grief, loss, rebirth, and death were implicit, distilled, expanded into unbelievable landscapes I hadn’t seen or understood as clearly before, in the surreal afterlife of my mother’s absence.

One of the best books I read last year and have returned to more than once is Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. The book left me speechless in its love, grace, and dignity. Reading that book gave me hope that I too could survive and celebrate life itself. Alexander’s book gave me hope and I picked up Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light and Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side. I also returned to Toi Derricotte’s The Undertaker’s Daughter.

Being on the road on tour for my own book, I often filled my suitcase with more books than clothing. Everything I wore was mostly black so I didn’t think or care about clothes at all. But I cared about books and knew there were certain books I needed to have with me should I wake up, inconsolable, in a hotel room on the other side of the country. And so, many books crossed state lines, their spines shifting in mile-high altitudes and time zones. I wrangled slim volumes of poetry into my camera bag, which was stuffed with lenses, notebooks, and a watercolor set.

I began thinking of books and geography, literally and psychically. I considered how landscapes affected my mood and how, of course, a voracious grief devoured everything. Sometimes I’d get frustrated because I couldn’t remember names of favorites characters or the way those characters in those books had once made me feel, so I’d go back and reread them. And, in my travels, I often looked out for marvelous independent bookstores where I would then pick up more books, often shipping them back to Brooklyn when I realized I’d be charged at the airport for being over the weight restrictions.

While working on a photography project in Oxford, Miss., last summer I reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Eudora Welty’s On Writing. I’d also carried around Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems, edited by Kevin Young, because I was working on photographs about black women’s bodies, identities, and the presence and interruption of landscape in terms of blackness.

This journey made me pick up a second or third copy of Roger Reeves’s King Me because I ended up driving down to Money, Miss., and further into the Delta. King Me made me go searching for Jean Toomer’s Cane and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston’s grace and excellence sent me back, gratefully, into the words of Henry Dumas, Langston Hughes, and Robert Hayden.

While I was in Portland, I caught up with Matthew Dickman but was so shy about meeting him I forgot to ask him to sign the hardcover of Mayakovsky’s Revolver I’d stashed in my rental car. And when I traveled down to Santa Fe to teach at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), I dove again into Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song and read Jessica Jacobs’s Pelvis with Distance because I was in Georgia O’Keeffe country. I’m still working through O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s letters, My Faraway One, and made some serious dents in it this year.

I’ve opened up Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra and placed those two near each other, like constellations, in my reading stack. Speaking of women artists, I reread the Diary of Frida Kahlo and Hayden Herrera’s biography of Frida Kahlo because I curated the Poetry Society of America’s Poetry Walk for the New York Botanical Garden’s astonishing exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Art Garden Life.” Lucky for me, I got to spend lots and lots of time with the poetry of Octavio Paz, one of my favorites!

A dear friend just sent me a copy of Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze. Literally, I’ve been hiding out in my house to devour it in one sitting, which obviously led to a second sitting so I could read the entire book aloud. But I had to leave my house eventually, so Levis has been riding the subways with me. We’re great company for each other.

Reading Levis, of course, made me pick up Philip Levine’s What Work Is again and that somehow made me pull out W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Jack Gilbert. When I journeyed to Vermont for the Brattleboro Festival, I cried at a moving tribute for Galway Kinnell and that made me buy another copy of The Book of Nightmares, which made me stay up all night in my hotel room reading aloud, remembering once how I’d been fortunate enough to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with Kinnell and so many other poets like Cornelius Eady and Marilyn Nelson and Martín Espada. And I think it was over 90 degrees out and Bill Murray walked across that day with us too.  Anyway, Kinnell pushed me toward Seamus Heaney and Czesław Miłosz. Throw in Tomas Tranströmer and Amiri Baraka’s SOS: 1961 – 2013, and somehow eventually I’m holding Federico García Lorca, who is always near, and whose words also travel with me on trains, planes, and dreams.

When I read poetry I’ll sometimes take down several poets who may or may not be speaking clearly to one another in some tone or mood or style. It helps me hear each of them even more clearly.

Finally, I think, if there’s time, the last two things I hope to read (again) before 2016 arrives will be Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

As I sit here looking at the bookshelves crammed with new books, I simply sigh in joy and think, too, of the stacks of books at my visual art studio nearby. This year I’m a reader for something for PEN, which means in the last months I’ve read over 50 books by writers of color, including poetry, fiction, and non fiction. Thinking just of that list alone, there are far too many books this year for me to include here. How wonderful! We’re all better for it!

So, here, quickly, are some more titles, both old and new, that changed me, whether by their grief, their beauty, their joy, their violence, their ambition, their desire, their imagination, their history, or future, but always, by their truth and courage:

Ross Gay, Unabashed Catalogues of Gratitude
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn; Lighthead
Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus
Jack Gilbert, Collected
Carl Phillips, Reconnaissance
Nicholas Wong, Crevasse
Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval
Kyle Dargan, Honest Engine
Nick Flynn, My Feelings
Tonya M. Foster, A Swarm of Bees in High Court
Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn
Jonathan Moody, Olympic Butter Gold
Margo Jefferson, Negroland
Chris Abani, Song for Night
Rick Barot, Chord
Major Jackson, Roll Deep
Yesenia Montilla, The Pink Box
Randall Horton, Hook
Parneshia Jones, Vessel
Ellen Hagan, Hemisphere
Yusef Komunyakaa, The Emperor of Water Clocks
Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl
Michael Klein, When I Was a Twin
Patti Smith, M Train
Marie Cardinal, The Words to Say It
Dawn Lundy Martin, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life
Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud
Paul Beatty, The Sellout
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Lila
Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopaedists
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
Marie Mockett, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye
Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel
Naomi Jackson, The Star Side of Bird Hill
Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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Life on Earth

“I’m the one who gets asked, publicly, how I manage to write and teach and have three kids. Do you get those questions, or do people just assume there is a woman doing all of the homemaking so you can go upstairs and write?” Poets Tracy K. Smith and Gregory Pardlo discuss David Bowie vs. Elton John, the confessional vs. the abstract, and the balance between family and work. Also check out Sophia Nguyen’s Millions review of Smith’s new memoir, Ordinary Light.

2015 National Book Award Shortlists Released

Book award season is peaking along with the autumn leaves as the National Book Award shortlists have been released in four categories. These have been whittled down from last month’s longlists, and the winners will be announced in New York City on November 18.

You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction shortlist here first, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

Refund by Karen E. Bender (“For What Purpose”)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book’s opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions)
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)

Nonfiction:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (“We Know Less Than We Think We Do”)
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt)
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt)
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt)
Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light)

Poetry:

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem)
How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem)
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem)
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things)
Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem)

Young People’s Literature:

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt)
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt)
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt)
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt)
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)

The National Book Award’s Longlist in Nonfiction: What a Difference a Year Makes

Last year, as I wrapped up writing my biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a writer who battled gender discrimination in her own day and has been unjustly forgotten in ours, I grew increasingly aware of how women continue to be sidelined in the literary world, thanks to the work of VIDA. Then the National Book Award’s nonfiction longlist came out, and I was astonished to see that only one book, out of 10, was by a female author. Reading the Mayborn study, which revealed that only 20 percent of prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years have gone to female authors convinced me that the NBA’s gender imbalance was not an anomaly.

I wondered in a piece here at The Millions whether fewer women wrote nonfiction, which some have called a guy’s club. However, I came to the conclusion that there were plenty of important nonfiction books being written by women that deserved to be considered for the prize. In fact, some of the books I highlighted did go on to win other prestigious prizes: Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age won the PEN Henry David Thoreau Award for Nature Writing, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, and Diane Allen won the Francis Parkman Prize for Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.

This year’s judges of the National Book Award seem to agree that women’s nonfiction writing is abundant and prize-worthy. The 2015 nonfiction longlist includes seven female-authored books, out of 10, the largest percentage of female nominees in the prize’s history. The longlist also contains two books by people of color, compared to last year’s one. What is even more interesting than the numbers, however, is the types of books on the list.

This year’s longlist could not be more different than last year’s in ways that go beyond gender and race but also suggest why this year’s list of authors is more diverse. Last year’s list, as well as those of the past few years, were heavy in genres and topics typically dominated by (white) men: national and military history; biographies of men, especially presidents; and economic or war reportage. This year there are no biographies at all on the list, and only two histories, although both take unconventional approaches to their subjects:

Martha Hodes’s Mourning Lincoln explores the private responses to Lincoln’s death, rather than its public meaning.
Susanna Moore’s Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawai’i focuses on the indigenous politics and culture of Hawaii.

Last year, only one memoir, a genre in which women writers have been rather prolific, made the longlist (and of the past 50 nonfiction books nominated, only 4 had been memoirs). This year, fully half of the nominated books can be loosely classified as memoirs, according to The New Yorker, three of them by women. (All are described below.) A related genre, the essay, is represented by one book on this year’s list:

Michael Paterniti’s Love and Other Ways of Dying.

Last year I particularly noted the disappointing lack of books that blurred genres or categories. I speculated that women may be more likely to write about history, science, or culture from a more personal perspective, injecting memoir into the usual nonfiction fare. This year’s list contains three such works, two by women, one by a man of color, and all of which suggest the power of writing about larger issues through a personal lens:

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a letter to his son, and ostensibly America, attempting to explain America’s perilous neuroses about race through memoir, reportage, and history.
Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness is unconventional science reportage that recounts the author’s friendship with an octopus and documents the emotional lives of the species as well.
Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran combines memoir and conversations that take the reader into the history and theology of the Quran.

Two other works on the list that defy easy categorization and offer innovative approaches to the genre are:

Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain is classified by its publisher as a science book but is subtitled A Natural and Cultural History, suggesting the ways it also crosses genre boundaries.
Sally Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs could be described as a kind of collage of text, photographs, letters, diaries, and reproductions of saved items, such as the notes she wrote on a negative’s envelope.

Another indication that this year’s nominees are untraditional is that four of the authors are better known for their work in other genres or art forms: Sally Mann is a photographer; Susanna Moore is a novelist; and two are poets:

Tracy K. Smith, author of Ordinary Light: A Memoir
Michael White, author of Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir

Overall, it’s fair to say that this year’s list more accurately reflects the diversity of nonfiction as a genre and points toward innovations that promise to invigorate it. It is tempting to believe that the National Book Awards took the many criticisms of last year’s list into account. One sign of their effort to do things differently this year may be the fact that three of the five judges are women (last year there were two), one of whom is African-American (the same as last year). Even more telling, however, is the fact that the chair of this year’s panel is one of the authors conspicuously absent from last year’s list: Diane Ackerman.

I concluded my essay last year with the hope that “the subtle biases that govern our understanding of literary value” will seem to us one day a quaint reminder of an earlier era. I had no idea my hope would be so quickly realized, at least for this one award for this one year. Such biases are still the norm, however. A recent study of the major fiction awards over the past 15 years determined that novels by and about men dominated, while those focusing on a female protagonist won zero Pulitzer Prizes, only two Man Booker Prizes, two National Book Awards, and one NBCC Award. There is still much to be done to ensure that awards in all genres are not gender biased and that judges can recognize merit outside the usual boundaries of the white male perspective. My hats off to the judges of this year’s NBA nonfiction award for accomplishing that goal.

2015 National Book Award Longlists Released

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Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 14, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 18.

The fiction list seems especially varied this year and includes many newcomers. Alongside highly touted books by Hanya Yanagihara, Lauren Groff, and Adam Johnson. Are “newcomers” like Bill Clegg, Angela Flournoy, and Nell Zink. It’s a great time to be a reader.

You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, of course, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews.

In the other categories, after last year’s male-dominated Non-Fiction longlist, female authors have captured seven of the spots this year.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball (Ball’s Year in Reading, 2009)
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (exerpt)
Refund by Karen E. Bender (“For What Purpose”)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book’s opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions)
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt)
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (excerpt (pdf))
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction, Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)
Mislaid by Nell Zink

Nonfiction:

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett (interview and excerpt)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (“We Know Less Than We Think We Do”)
Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes (excerpt)
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt)
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt)
Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore (essay)
Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterniti (excerpt)
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt)
Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light)
Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir by Michael White (excerpt)

Poetry:

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem)
Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler (excerpt)
A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems, 1994-2014 by Marilyn Hacker (the title poem)
How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem)
The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield (poem)
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem)
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things)
Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem)
Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips (poem)
Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts by Lawrence Raab (poem)

Young People’s Literature:

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (excerpt)
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt)
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (excerpt)
This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs by Gary Paulsen
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt)
X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon (excerpt)
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt)
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt)
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)

A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s ‘Ordinary Light’

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.

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