A New Language 

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light is nothing short of tender, with its vivid details on moments that could easily be buried in one’s memories. I think I tend to gravitate towards similar themes: books on poetry, literature, love, relationships, self. Smith’s was no different, except it opened up a foreign world wherein she had (and I didn’t) a language — all of it beautiful, majestic, painful — for her relationship with her mother.

She introduced Kathy Smith, her mother, in quite possibly the most loving way. The stories of her childhood intermingled with her mama’s homecooked dishes, pies and cakes, her gentle admonishments; even the Christian one-liners that Smith learned from her sprinkled throughout the book were welcoming. Her prose gave me the time and the space to lament my own childhood. One which has been riddled with a kind of conditional love that I’m just barely starting to accept.

Hers was filled with a different light, the kind that sifts through tall pine trees in the morning, straight from the heavens to the soft, green grass. I’ve never read anyone who has spoken so tenderly of their mother, which at times I found to be implausible. But Tracy took me there, and I knew. I started to heal.

I thought about my own mother in the next room, sleeping by herself in a large, empty bed. I wonder if she’s dreaming about my father who works the graveyard shift in San Francisco. I wonder if she longs for him the way I longed for her tenderness, the same longing throughout my life that started and ended with three words: I am enough.

As my mother read, I’d sometimes let my eyes drift across her face, taking her in out of habit, memorizing her, breathing in her smell, the way she held herself, the lilting cadence of her voice. […] watching her warmed me. I was calm and safe beside her, right at home. I didn’t think to call it beauty but beside her, I felt what the presence of beauty makes a person feel.