A reflection on history and America’s current moment, Wade in the Water centers on a series of erasure poems in which the entirety of the poem is composed of words from a source text. This structure allows the voices of those Smith wishes to honor, and sometimes challenge, to speak for themselves. What emerges is deeply poignant commentary on the violence done to black Americans. For example, “Declaration,” which uses as its source text the Declaration of Independence, opens with “He has / sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people.”
Erasure poems, also referred to as documentary or blackout poems, are powerful tools to understand the present through the past. They accomplish what Smith intends for her work to do—they make the reader pause. “You want a poem to unsettle something,” Smith told The New York Times Magazine in an April profile. “There’s a deep and interesting kind of troubling that poems do, which is to say: ‘This is what you think you’re certain of, and I’m going to show you how that’s not enough. There’s something more that might be even more rewarding if you’re willing to let go of what you already know.’”
“The Greatest Personal Privation,” another moving erasure poem in Wade, draws from letters between family members of Mary and Charles Colock Jones, who were slaveowners. Here, Smith imagines the enslaved mother and daughter, Patience and Phoebe, speaking through the Jones’s words:
We may yet discover
The whole country
Will not come back
From the sale of parent
Patience and Phoebe were members of the Geechee/Gullah communities in Liberty County, Georgia. In a subtle linking of past and present, Smith dedicates her collection’s title poem to the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, a group of performers in Georgia preserving their culture through song and dance. In “Wade in the Water,” Smith recounts how she, like every other member of the audience, was greeted by one of the Ring Shouters with a hug and the words I love you:
Know me, but I believed her,
And a terrible new ache
Rolled over in my chest
In this description of embrace, Smith captures the triumph and burden of forgiveness so embedded in black spirituals. As both speaker and writer, in this and a majority of the poems in the collection, Smith reflects on how her art form can and should unify people.
Since her appointment as laureate in 2017, Smith has traveled to small, rural communities, initially focusing on the South and Southwest—a project she sees as a kind of literary evangelism. “It’s been a privilege to share my own work and the work of other contemporary poets with strangers that crowdsourcing algorithms tell me I ought to have nothing in common with,” Smith said of her outreach in a recent lecture, “and to hear people say things like, I’m white, you’re black; I’m from this place, you’re from another, and yet, when you talk about your father you restore my own father to me.” On upcoming trips, Smith plans to read both her own work and selections from an anthology she edited, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, to be published this fall.