Review by Cassandra da Costa
Duende, the title of Tracy K. Smith’s 2007 collection of poetry, is appropriately one of those words whose elusiveness is essential to its resonance. It is a word most famously defined—or rather, approximated—by Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet. Mysteriously, he narrows down meaning by negation: “The duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat, the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.” The epigraph Smith uses at the beginning of the book is even more abstract, with Lorca explaining that “the duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.”
Duende is one of those words that can be evoked through language, located within and beyond the earth, but never simply established and transcribed. It follows then, that in each of Smith’s poems, the language is simple, but not charged with the momentum of a single reference. Rather, each line is paced at a lingering tempo, is patient, and reverberates with questions that build and transform. In “The Searchers,” named after John Ford’s 1956 feature film starring John Wayne, each line and stanza bores down with increasing weight, dwelling in—and then transcending—its own thoughts and images:
And why do we grip it, hang on
As if it’s the ribs of a horse
Past commanding? A beast
That could wreck us easily,
Could rise up on two legs,
Or kick its back end up
And send us soaring.
We might land, any moment,
Like cheap toys. […]
Smith uses words artfully, yet sparingly. Her vocabulary is uncomplicated, yet specific. As a result, at first read, her poems may come off as rather traditional. However, these qualities do not dull her work, for Smith rises above convention in the way she allows the personal and historical to play off each other—for one to implicate the other. Several of her poems use real events as source material. Many of these events are tragedies of varying historical impact that take place in Brazil, Uganda, and the United States. In “I Killed You Because You Didn’t Go to School and Had No Future,” (below the title: “Note left beside the body of nine-year-old Patricio Hilario, found in a Rio street in 1989”) Smith lends voice to a speaker whom we might assume is Patricio’s murderer:
[…] Little shit.
Delinquent. You couldn’t even read
What we wrote about kids like you. Today,
heat wends up from the neighbor’s houses
Like fear in reverse. Your uncle
Wears trousers and perspires
Into the seams of his shirt. His only belt
Is full of new holes and nearly circles you twice.
Smith does not allow the poem to solely take the form of elegy, but rather in a series of six couplets, divides the reader between the pathos of mourning and the moral opacity that tends to cloud familial relations, especially when combined with traditionally unsympathetic characters: a bully speaker/narrator, a delinquent child, a sweaty uncle.
In “Brazil,” my favorite poem in the collection, Smith’s best talents are on display: her skillful use of compact forms and formats in which she is able to well up feeling through the energy of each carefully chosen word and the pacing of each line—lines that manage to illuminate the colors of their own images before giving way to new ones. It was at this point in my reading, by the conclusion of this poem, where I started to see Smith’s duende. Which is not to say an instance in which the poem seemed to apply straightforwardly to the collection’s title, but a moment at which the poet’s influence, impulse, or inspiration seemed in action and at play, and not simply commented on. This notion of life in the veins, of creation surging from the soles, the core of the being, or of death-drive—pleasure as a path to completion—speaks to the nature of poetry itself. Smith seems to constantly inhabit that space which is the moment, the instance of drive, of creation, which compels us to conclusion, but, as Lorca points out, with no consolation:
Poets swagger up and down the shore, I’ll bet,
Wagging their hips in time to the raucous tide.
They tip back their heads and life sears a path
Down the throat. […]
Smith writes poems that are not simply meant to move us, but to move themselves. Her poems are not elliptical, but continuous. They well up and, too hot to recede, surpass their source in favor of that more nebulous path cleared from the poet’s own mouth.