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Ordinary Light by Tracy K Smith review - powerful meditation on daughters and mothers

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The Pulitzer-winning poet tries to answer her mother’s question – “What were you searching for?” – in a lyrical prose work in which food plays a significant part

“Did I ever wonder who my mother used to be, before she belonged to me?” Tracy K Smith asks early in her new memoir, Ordinary Light. “I have the recollection of her struggling once or twice to describe her younger self to me, and finding that girl unrecognizable. The phrase she used, that so much seemed to hang upon, was ‘I was searching’. What were you searching for? I would ask, confused, eager to understand.”

In the book, Smith is trying, as she can, to answer her late mother’s spiritual quest with her own. Her remarkable poetry – she has published three volumes thus far, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars– has featured her mother and father before, if in flashes. But Ordinary Light offers a longer, fuller illumination of their histories, as Smith tries to understand her own 1970s-era middle-class Californian upbringing in relationship to the brutality of black life in America during the 1950s.

One afternoon when she taught me how to cook a chicken, she’d reminisced that, at my age, she would have been told to go wring a bird’s neck and pluck its feathers before dressing it for roasting. When I helped her roll out biscuit dough and cut it into circles using the mouth of a coffee cup, she’d sometimes remind that she had learned to do the same task when she had been a mere five or six years old, standing on a chair by the kitchen stove.

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