Tracy K. Smith’s new memoir, Ordinary Light, is a work of testimony, faith, loss, and family. Centered on the loss of Smith’s mother, Ordinary Light illuminates the ways in which the world of childhood gives way to complex desire and regret. Smith’s poetic sensibilities (last seen in her Pulitzer Prize winning collection Life on Mars) lend a serenity and beauty to the mundane, domestic world of suburban California. While death in some ways becomes a character within the memoir, Smith’s reflections hone in on a life before grief, pushing her into a new understanding of adulthood. The work is peppered with vignettes of the embarrassment, hurt, in/security, and desire of childhood. As a coming-of-age narrative, Ordinary Light delves into the complicated world of mother-daughter relationships without retreading familiar ground.
This is a memoir written with a poet’s brevity and lyricism. In particular, Smith’s descriptions of faith are luminous. She writes, “I feel most alive, most electric with faith, breath, and courage when I think of God as a current that runs through all that is. Not by will or by choice. Not as a benediction but because there are laws even God must obey.” In this memoir, Smith deftly vacillates between the microcosm of home and family and the large, abundant mystery of both life and afterlife. Smith takes growing up beyond the relatable into the realm of the palpable with her work, and it was a pleasure to speak with her about the writing process, her beliefs, and her intentions with this new work. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Casey Rocheteau
The Barnes & Noble Review: The prologue of Ordinary Light, “The Miracle,” alerts the reader to a looming grief that does not pervade the work but hangs over its head, slowly creeping toward an inevitable narrative circle. What prompted you to begin the memoir this way? Was the structure of the book something you conceived of before sitting down to write, or did it occur to you as you were already in the process of writing?
Tracy K. Smith: It was definitely not something I planned on doing. Somehow I had imagined I could get away without writing that scene, and then it became clear to me that something was missing. Before I realized I wanted to open with it, there were so many things that I was saying or thinking about in earlier chapters, when I was a kid, that almost felt like they were foreshadowing this fact that my mother was going to die. It felt like this weird secret to be keeping from the reader. After I wrote that scene I realized that if I could just open with it, that there would be no secret and any time I wanted to talk about fearing that my mother might someday die, or a feeling that might be more subtle than that, I didn’t feel like I was planting this suspenseful seed, which felt a little tricky or deceptive. It seemed helpful to open with this kind of full disclosure and then move backward and figure it out. And the fact of her death added purpose to some of the quieter, more ordinary chapters about childhood.
BNR: In the chapter “A Home in the World” you pose the question, “Why was it so much easier to call out to the future than the past?” Did you feel yourself asking that question when writing your memoir? Was it difficult to ensconce yourself so deeply in a world of these particular memories?
TKS: It might have been part of what was happening to me, and the effects of these memories and telling these stories, but as I was writing, I kept coming to this feeling or fact of trauma and I would get kind of quiet when history and the heavy side of history would come even close to part of the conversation. And that’s part of the past that, throughout my growing up, was really difficult for me to want to accept and talk about, and ask questions about, because it hurt. At the same time, in writing the book I realized there was this forward thrust that I had, and maybe every kid has it. I’m so excited about what the future will hold, I’m so excited about what will happen when I leave home and grow up.
In writing about it now from this distance, it struck me that leaning toward the future for me meant leaning away from the things that were difficult for me to put into words or even difficult to hear. In a way, writing about it has exorcised some the anxiety for me. I maybe even write a little bit about how that happens when you just put things into words, how they become diffused of some of their threat. And I think that writing this book allowed me to identify the anxieties that I had that I lived with but didn’t know how to name to myself when I was growing up.
It also allowed me to realize that there was nothing to be afraid of, that I could look back and make sense of the past. And it happened, like our lives happen, quickly and haphazardly. It also felt good to be able to say, “I was afraid of this thing, but maybe in writing about it I can come to terms with it.” Or even to track my anxiety about race, or about racial history and those things became less frightening.
BNR: The natural world appears throughout this work in a way that inspires fear: when you visit Leroy, Alabama as a child, when you go camping on a class trip. It also struck me that this is a powerfully feminine work, about the relationships between daughters and mothers, domesticity, chastity, and the guilt of impurity. Two times, I noticed, you used the word feral — once when describing Mother’s (your maternal grandmother) state of being after she lost her husband, and again when describing the way your mother viewed you when you came home from college and she suspected you were having sex. Do you feel as though this is a condition specific to black femininity — that anything beyond the realm of “propriety” is considered feral — lost and/or wild?
TKS: I really see how that could be supported in the work. I have to say it’s unconscious for me. I would say that in some ways it has to be rooted in the extremely sanitized domesticity that the suburbs represented for me. In some ways it is raced because they were white suburbs, even if they didn’t always stay that way. That’s how they started. Maybe there’s a huge part of every person that the coming-of-age process activates, which is about moving into some sort of free zone and becoming untamed or different of original. I imagine there’s a way in which those things are in conversation with one another. The other thing I’ll say, is that if I’m thinking about femininity in the book, and in the family, then yes, you’re right, it automatically is black femininity because these are the models that I’m valuing, even if I’m rejecting what they seem to be prescribing for me.
BNR: Much was made of your father’s work on the Hubble Telescope when Life on Mars was published. In Ordinary Light you write, “If I could have fashioned a model of my own imagination, perhaps it would have resembled the telescope my father was working on” that you could only “half decipher, pointing off into the edges of the distance that had no shape.” This struck me as a poet’s reckoning of the imagination. Your poem “The Largeness We Can’t See” from Life on Mars addresses a similar theme, glancing at some memories that appear in Ordinary Light (I’m thinking here of the “beads yanked” from the poem, and the story of a boy ripping a beloved necklace from your neck on a school bus in the memoir). How is the writing process different for you personally in writing poetry and memoir? Do you feel like you’re culling from the same source material, or are you writing from different places mentally and emotionally?
TKS: This is something I was really thinking about when I wrote certain passages, but not, oddly enough, the passage about the beads. Now that you say that, of course that gesture would stand out in my memory as something that could serve to ignite a certain kind of emotion in a poem, because it happened to me.
It was really exciting to think about writing some of the very same things in this process to me that feels like a different language, and partly because of the work that happens offstage in a poem. You’re letting your mind make these associative leaps and zero in on images that have a certain kind of visceral or emotional power, and they do a lot of the work that’s more important than narrative work in a poem. So, a gesture like yanking a necklace from someone’s neck out of context still has a dramatic effect. It was really exciting to stop and go to specific feelings and events in my life and not just let images do the work but have to interrogate the events themselves. I was trying to tell the story from as close as I could to the perspective I might have had then, but then there’s this other layer that’s really about me as an adult reflecting and asking, “What’s important about this? Why am I remembering this? What does it say to other things in the book?” I’ve never done that before in a poem.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the difference between poetry and prose and as I’ve experienced it, poetry is insistent. It allows for images and statements to operate in a single space and resonate powerfully without the application to be elaborated upon and narrated. Prose is something that is persistent, in staying in one place long enough to not only zero in on the dramatic effect of something that might have happened, or something that might have been seen, but also in watching how it played out and thinking about the cause and the effect. It felt like a long-range vision. That was really exciting to realize I could utilize this different behavior in language and get different information — or maybe that’s not the right word — almost getting a different value from some of the same experience simply because I had to fill in the white space around them. In a poem it would just be white space that the reader would contribute some sort of psychic energy or emotional memories to in fleshing out.
BNR: You end the chapter “Total Adventure” by describing how, after reading the Book of Revelation for the first time, you’d lie awake “caught between competing currents of feeling: disbelief that salvation could really be as literal as all that and a strange, powerful nostalgia for the very years I was in the process of living, when the world of my family was the only heaven I needed to believe in.” Family and faith are entwined threads in the work, but in this moment they become one bound entity. Do you feel as though this idea is something you’ve carried with you in your life and work, the sense of a unity in family, home and belief?
TKS: I definitely think so. I’ve carried that idea with me without even knowing it. In some ways, writing the memoir alerted me to the persistent nature of belief in my life and how that connects to my private history. Losing my father made me want to find out if I could come up with a version of God or the afterlife that I could feel like was acceptable now that both my parents are in it. Certain poems, I didn’t even know how sort of spiritual or religious they were until after they were published, really. So that was an urge that I definitely came to acknowledge. And then in thinking about my family, it was very easy to see that it was the ritual of churchgoing and the humility of faith, and also the sense that there is this just order that we are subject to, and that’s also looking out for us. Those values, I think, really held my family together. I think those are values that hold a lot of black families together, especially my parents’ generation; the church must have played a role like that for them, and they transmitted that to my siblings and me. Even within that, there were these moments where it seems like there were two different things working together: the family, which I understood, and made sense, and had no qualms about and the structure of faith which I understood and accepted but sometimes felt alienated by or skeptical of. And maybe that has to do with the way other people become involved, thinking about the other churchgoers that seem to represent a different way of being than I preferred. Those were maybe some of the first things that made me wonder if everything had to make sense, that all of God as he was given to me had to make sense, and if every version of God given to me by other people was something I had to completely accept.
BNR: There’s a moment when, confronted with gossip about you while volunteering at a Baptist summer Bible camp, you end up writing the phrase “God is not that small” over and over again. Do you feel as though any particular point in the memoir exemplifies a crisis of faith, or is it, overall, more about a process of faith?
TKS: I think it’s a process. I think the crisis occurs when I am trying to hear the same thing as I feel in this shared language of faith. So basically the language is something that’s ritualized and shared, and the terms that you use in the family, , , , I could assume we were saying and meaning the same things. But then, when you go outside of that inner circle, some of those same terms seem to mean different things. I resisted that. So in being asked to bow my head and pray and being asked to think about these parables from the Bible in very specific and limiting ways by this kid at church, I think that was one moment where I realized the shared language doesn’t always translate into shared feelings. I felt like maybe Christians seemed to me really eager to domesticate God. And I like the large, wild version of God better. I don’t know why, maybe the urge to make God into a human like us was frustrating because it meant he was being made into the image of someone I didn’t quite trust. Then maybe another version of that might be another church encounter I write about how quickly we’re taught to brush past all of it — a really nuanced, or potential for nuance — in some of these stories or these characters from the Bible. That seemed counter to my interest in literature and experience. It’s really a choreographed dance sometimes that worship is, and maybe that felt superficial. I don’t know, in talking about it like this, maybe it seems like I’ve figured this out, or don’t think I have, but one of the things in writing this book is that I became capable of articulating some of the anxieties and frustrations and questions. I feel more at ease thinking that I am somebody that has belief but am someone that also is comfortable the mystery that comes with it, the ambiguity that comes with it. Maybe I also feel like it’s not necessarily a prescription for conformity the way that it’s used, but beyond that I don’t know how much I figured out. One of the things that made me want to write about faith in this book is because I thought that like my mom, I want to be able to testify to something, I want to be able to say what I believe for my kids. And what I came away from this process feeling is that which is testified to became less important than the act of testifying, the act of saying “I believe. There is a place in me where this lives,” but I haven’t nailed it down.
BNR: You also refer often to growing up almost as an only child, as you were the youngest of five children who were all at least eight years older than yourself. I thought of this in particular when you wrote about reading Dickinson’s “I Am Nobody, Who Are You?” in school, as if the poem were a shared secret between the two of you. As poets, we dwell in the realm of the interior so often. Do you feel like the loneliness you describe feeling when you were young affected your inclination toward becoming a poet or your writing now?
TKS: Oh definitely. I was the youngest of many and also an only child. There’s a whole portion of my childhood that seems characterized by that kind of spacious privacy that I imagine only children have. There are these moments in my life when everybody’s home and we were all together and there was all this activity, and then the silence that followed that felt really loud sometimes. Books were a really wonderful way of filling that silence. It felt as generous as family, and it was also a way of feeling like you have someone’s undivided attention, which maybe is what I’d been spoiled into expecting. Being that much younger, my siblings weren’t really competitive with me, they sort of doted on me and played with me. Books do that too. I think I was really drawn to that, because that kind of encounter felt familiar. And then maybe it also felt exciting because the feeling I got was “the narrator or speaker is so wise, they’re imparting wisdom and they’re choosing me to give it to.” That made me feel so special and wise by association. There was definitely something about being in the conversation of a book that felt like I was being illuminated.
BNR: You write about trying to discern who your mother was before she met your father or had children, when she was growing up in Leroy, Alabama and then when she went to college. You write that when you would ask her about this past version of her, she’d ambiguously tell you that she was “searching.” By the end of your memoir, you conclude that you too are searching, and I wondered if that feeling of searching, of yearning for the indiscernible, was what prompted you to write this memoir now, or if it was something else altogether.
TKS: I think it partly was. I had wanted to write about my mother since just a few years after she died. First it was poems, because I went to grad school within a year of that. That was my material, but I wasn’t ready to really write about it in a way that might have been truly productive. I also had these essays that I had started that really became the kernels for this book.
Some of the scenes around food might have originated in essay form, just wanting to write about my family. I think that became motivated by the desire to speak into that void, this sense that “she’s gone, she’s really gone. How can I keep traces of the us that existed from disappearing?” For me, it was about writing it into being, and asking or discovering some of the questions that I might have had.
Another motivation I had was that I had children, and I wanted them to know my mother, but also the family and the person I had been, and all these conditions that are gone because of time. Part of me wanted to tell that story, but then I started telling that story and realized that there’s so much I didn’t know, and so much I couldn’t know unless I could find a way of empathizing enough that the gaps got smaller. I guess it’s the only choice I had, but I realize there’s this huge margin of error. It was really about trying to return to someone and also correct some of the mistakes I made. I still feel guilty about having been such an adolescent when she died and feeling so secretive, which prevented us from having a really open kind of relationship before she died. Part of this was about expressing that and wanting to think about what those silences might have felt like on my side and perhaps on hers.
I used to always say, I was trying to write these poems in grad school and they wanted to correct the fact of her death, and you can’t correct it, it’s permanent. And maybe that’s one of the wishes of this book as well. It’s that persistence of prose: that thing that makes you have to keep talking until something is clarified. It also helped me to recognize there was a narrative that I’ve lived and perhaps if I can recognize it, maybe it means that she was already able to recognize it and for her it made sense, as well.
BNR: When your mother was very sick, close to dying, she said she was talking to angels who told her that you were going to be a writer. While those impulses were already there, do you feel any sense that this was a prophecy — that fate’s hand guided you to where you are today?
TKS: I did, and I have to explain it in a couple of ways. One is was a way I could see it then, which was that in the family belief is real, and so if this thing happened to my mother, even if it’s some sort of hallucination, there’s a way in which it was anchored to the reality of belief. So that was a real encounter she was having. That skepticism didn’t come into play. If that had happened say in a restaurant, with somebody else’s parents, then skepticism would come into play, but because it was my family and it was in the sanctum of our home, then it just seemed unassailable. It was a difficult time, and I attributed clarity to what she knew was happening, maybe because I needed to believe that she was lucid. Another thing is that the ego comes into play, because if it’s something that you want to believe is true for you, then it’s very easy to claim and eliminate any skepticism.
The other thing, which I think characterizes my view of belief, is that I can accept that a literal reading of faith is not what I like. The literal reading is what creates fundamentalism, and the literal reading is what attempts to back believers into a corner. The literal belief is about stamping out the possibility of wonder. And so, being able to accept that metaphor might be the best explanation for most of the mystery that stems from faith somehow gives me a kind of freedom to move within it and accept what would otherwise be kind of incredible, meaning not credible. And those three things together, although I wouldn’t have been able to parse it like that at the time, have somehow just made it easy for me to take that as real. I needed it to be real. I didn’t have any reason to doubt the reality of faith in my mother’s life and I like the idea that strange things are possible for whatever reason. For me that was enough. It scared me, but it was also a really helpful kind of benediction.
BNR: Finally, the title Ordinary Light mirrors a poem you wrote, “The Ordinary Life,” while still an undergraduate at Harvard, while knowing your mother was very sick. You also use the phrase to describe the light of a ranch house while you are encompassed by literal darkness while processing grief. In that moment, and in the final passage of the book, there is a yearning for the simplicity of childhood. Do you feel that this desire for a state of innocence, felt by the biblical Adam in “The Ordinary Life” with “no hurry to rise, no hurry not to” is ever-present in your work? Is there any way to regain it, or is the wanting the ultimate destination?
TKS: I think that it is a huge part of what poetry comes from. The way I like to understand what poems do, and what they offer, is that they bring us very close to what we knew before we forgot it. Poems are attempting to bring into familiar language the largeness and the strangeness of being alive, of human experience. And that was a language that I like to imagine we lived in before we came into the language that would replace it, and maybe childhood is a good enough place to anchor that Ur-state. Maybe for me a poem is always about that wholeness that we originated from. I think that in this book, that must have factored in even just in terms of what language is trying to do.
I also think because I framed that sense of my family, it’s also really connected to that time that even when I was in it, I knew wouldn’t last forever. The epigraph from the beginning of the book from James Baldwin always has spoken to me in a similar way. I’ve always understood what the narrator of that book was talking about when he is talking about being in these rooms with old folks and kids after church on Sunday and there are no interior lights on because it’s daytime. It was especially at that time when people could talk and laugh and clown and share even some of the heavier things that make up this life and then knowing that soon enough, the sun’s going to set, the light’s going to have to come on, and everyone is going to be disbanded, and taking that not only as a symbol that this moment in time was ending but that belies the finite. I always felt so moved by that little passage in “Sonny’s Blues,” and it felt so true to me.
I think that the image of the light and the safety of being a child and someone is awake and someone is waiting and calling to you, it got grafted on to that James Baldwin version, too. The title was one of the last things that I wrote. Edmund White gave me some advice, because I didn’t know how to pick a title for this. He said, “Just re-read it and look for a really quiet phrase that might have a metaphorical weight to it that’s subtle.” He said that was sometimes what he would do. So I did that, and the feeling that I get off of that image is kind of what I wish I could stick to the cover of this book, so that’s the phrase that I chose. And then I realized there are a lot of images of light that are trying to help me to get at a certain emotional tone within scenes or recollections, so it seemed like it might be indigenous to my vocabulary.