This book brought me serotonin for the first time in awhile.
Yesterday, it was a beautiful (almost) fall day in Athens, Georgia. I was sitting outside on my back porch on my cheap Walmart outdoor furniture that may or may not be missing some screws, and I was reading, and I was perfectly content for what felt like the first time in a month.
The transition back to school has been difficult. I am frustrated about the lack of Covid regulations, I am still feeling a sense of immense isolation due to the pandemic, and my social anxiety has been bubbling up day in and day out. Content isn’t a word I would have used to describe my state of being over the past month. But oh goodness, yesterday, reading Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light with the sun on my shoulders and the breeze in my hair, I could have sworn that I had never been so content.
Ordinary Light is a memoir that does not shy away from tragedy. Instead, it moves towards it with open arms, embracing heartache as a feat of human life. In Ordinary Light, Smith grapples with the period of her life from middle school to college, navigating questions of faith, desire, belonging, race, and grief. After being poet lariat of the United States, Smith turned to prose to unpack the complex emotions she still held as a result of her mother’s death. When Smith became pregnant, she wanted a way to convey to her daughter all that her mother, and her mother’s mother before that, had imprinted onto her life. She wanted to document a legacy, a legacy of complex identities that her unborn daughter was being born into.
“In “Ordinary Light,” Smith writes as a daughter who has lost her mother and is thinking of her own daughter as she submits to the “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.” Every line of her prose is well behaved. But ambition had been there all along: “I wanted to write the kind of poetry that people read and remembered, that they lived by — the kinds of lines that I carried with me from moment to moment on a given day without even having chosen to.” Her inclusive lists of influences — Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Philip Larkin, Yusef Komunyakaa — testify that black identity these days is way past black and white.”
Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light is a beautiful memoir grappling with the author’s life before, during, and after the death of her mother. Incorporating an impressive honesty with self, an incredible amount of self compassion, and truly marvelous lyrical prose, Ordinary Light was a book seething with beauty, authenticity, and raw emotion. Cannot recommend enough, especially at a time right now, where we are all learning to live with you tragedy daily. It allowed me to see that beauty is all around us, even in times of tragedy. The light can be found in the ordinary if we simply remember to look.
“Wasn’t it strange that a poem, written in my vocabulary and as a result of my own thoughts or observations, could, when it was finished, manage to show me something I hadn’t already known? Sometimes, when I tried very hard to listen to what the poem I was writing was trying to tell me, I felt the way I imagined godly people felt when they were trying to discern God’s will. “Write this,” the poem would sometimes consent to say, and I’d revel in a joy to rival the saints’ that Poetry—this mysterious presence I talked about and professed belief in—might truly be real.”
“I shut my ears, averted my eyes, turning instead to what I thought at the time was pain’s antidote: silence. I was wrong… Silence feeds pain, allows it to fester and thrive. What starves pain, what forces it to release its grip, is speech, the voice upon which rides the story, this is what happened; this is what I have refused to let claim me.”