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Wade in the Water review – lost voices of the American underground

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A long overdue collection from US poet laureate Tracy K Smith weaves a spiritual hymn to the nation’s forgotten people

Tracy K Smith is the poet laureate of the United States and a winner of the Pulitzer prize. Wade in the Water is, inexplicably, the first of her three collections to be published in the UK. The title is from a spiritual sung on the underground railroad that carried slaves to safety in the 19th century. Its centrepiece is a gathering of what are known as “erasure poems” – a strange term as what Smith is doing is the opposite of erasure. She is making visible the words of slaves and their owners, of African Americans enlisted in the civil war –these are found poems about people who were lost. Smith has pieced their correspondence together with the love of someone making a hand-stitched quilt.

The letter from Nashville in 1865 (below) is typical: brittle, misspelt and piercingly sad. It is a poem of salvage where salvage is no longer practical. I found myself wondering whether these were poems at all – and whether it matters. Their power to move is obvious, the injustices suffered undiminished by time. Elsewhere, Smith writes about history’s tendency to flee: “History spits, Go, go go, lurching at the horizon” (New Road Station). She is determined to hold history back, yet the outrage these poems occasion is familiar. They border on uncontroversial: no one reading this poetry could fail to be on the poet’s side.

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