Critical Assessment

“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.”

Darryl Pinckney, “‘Ordinary Light: A Memoir,’ by Tracy K. Smith,” The New York Times, April 28, 2015.

First Excerpt

“She left us at night. It had felt like night for a long time, the days at once short and ceaselessly long. November-dark. She’d been lifting her hand to signal for relief, a code we’d concocted once it became too much effort for her to speak and too difficult for us to understand her when she did. When it became clear that it was taking everything out of her just to lift the arm, we told her to blink, a movement that, when you’re watching for it, becomes impossibly hard to discern. ‘Was that a blink?’ we’d ask when her eyelids just seemed to ripple or twitch. ‘Are you blinking, Mom? Was that a blink?’ until finally, she’d heave the lids up and let them thud back down to say, Yes, the pain weighs that much, and I am lying here, pinned beneath it. Do something.

51EzI93QtsL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Second Excerpt

“There were seven of us: Mom, Dad, Wanda, Jean, Conrad, Michael, and, after a lapse of about eight and a half years, me. ‘Seven is God’s perfect number,’ my mother said sometimes, dragging one of the kitchen chairs to the dining room table before dinner. We might have been eight. They would have called the other child Ian if it had been a boy. ‘I guess it wasn’t meant to be,’ my mother would offer whenever I’d ask why there was such a large gap between my older siblings and me. . . .

“Seven is God’s favorite number, but in time our nuclear unit, like every other, would disband. In the now I’m remembering, however, we are steady, steadfast, happy, and whole. No one has yet left home and in so doing tripped the wire on a progression leading us all further into the future waiting to claim us. In the now I’m remembering, it is still only this: Michael and Conrad together in the room upstairs on the left, Wanda filling the big pitcher with water while Jean helps bring the food to the dining room. My father putting aside his book and calling us all to stand around the table with our heads bowed and then to sit down to hot rolls with butter and a meal promising that nothing bad would come for us for a long time.”