In Wade in the Water, U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner for Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith weaves together past and present, personal and political in ways that are at once urgent and timeless. Using a variety of forms⏤traditional and non-traditional, short verse and long fragmented pieces, found poems and erasures⏤Smith ponders historical and contemporary injustices with as much nuance and intelligence as she does private, localized subjects like motherhood, and vast, infinite ones like eternity.

At the cornerstone of her collection is the long-sectioned poem, “I Will Tell You The Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It,” whose lines are drawn entirely from letters and statements from African-Americans during the Civil War⏤both enlisted men and their families. And though Smith has arranged these lines⏤for instance, she presents one letter as a sonnet⏤the voices that sound are those of speakers from the past. She preserves misspellings and other idiosyncrasies from the originals, resisting the temptation to poeticize. Instead, Smith opts to put these voices in conversation with one another and with the present reader. The final section features haunting statements from black soldiers whose names were recorded incorrectly in order to prevent them from claiming their pensions: “My correct name is Hiram Kirkland. / Some persons call me Harry and others call me Henry, / but neither is my correct name.”

Other ambitious poems from this collection include an erasure of the Declaration of Independence, another drawn from slave owners’ letters, and the found poem “Watershed,” which juxtaposes lines from a New York Times article about the company that makes Teflon, Dupont, who knowingly poisoned water sources in West Virginia.

Wade in the Water is unflinching. It doesn’t forgive, nor does it forget. One early poem in her collection damns: “Those awful, awful men…Whose wealth is a kind of filth.” Still Smith offers respite and ends the collection on a note of hope⏤blurring past, present, and future⏤looking back over “a long age” and finally, looking forward: “Then animals long believed gone crept down / From trees. We took new stock of one another. / We wept to be reminded of such color.”

Graywolf Press.