June 11, 2007

Review: Duende

Graywolf Press, $14 paperback

In an essay examining Federico García Lorca’s well known though not always well articulated concept of duende, Tracy K. Smith writes: “Unlike the Muse or Angel, which exists beyond or above the poet, the duende sleeps within the poet, and asks to be awakened and wrestled, often at great cost.” With such a risk taking place, successful results should be as impressive. Thus it was a brave move to title her second book, Duende, since the expectations will be high. So far, Smith has met and surpassed that promise by winning the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets because Duende is an intelligent and important book, a staggering study of the modern world.

Indeed, Smith’s project aims for a great vision, opening with a stylized epic titled “History” that sets the tone and volition:
This is a poem about all we’ll do
Not to scratch—

Where fatigue is great, the mind
Will invent entire stories to protect sleep.

Dark stories. Deep fright.
Syntax of nonsense.
From this vast starting point, the rest of the poems navigate through the trials of humanity, personal and communal—grief, loss, oppression, war—the pain, but so to the unsatisfactory healing, follies of the modern man, like 911:
The century’s in rubble, so we curl
Around pictures of ourselves, like Russian dolls

Whose bodies within bodies form a world

Free of argument, a make-shift cure

For old-fashioned post-millennial denial.
Taking a personal turn, part II of Duende maps the rift of a disintegrating marriage (“For years, your back to me made a continent./ I roamed it. Like wading the desert after dark.”), and the search for a trope to make sense of falling out of love, or rather, to come to terms with the shifting ground of emotion or being. It’s called moving on. One of those tropes is in the title poem, which personifies the duende, what Smith refers to in the aforementioned essay as “the perilous yet necessary struggle to inhabit ourselves—our real selves, the ones we barely recognize—more completely.” For the Spanish gypsies:
The earth is dry and they live wanting.
Each with a small reservoir

Of heavy music heavy in the throat.
And when they dance flamenco, they make of the body a “parable/ For what not even language/ Moves quickly enough to name.”

Part III takes its cue from Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire, in which he catalogs the atrocities committed against the disenfranchised in the Americas. For Smith, the fabrics of tragedy come as near as Aunt Neet’s admission of a wistful dream at a family reunion, reach as far as the dry savannas of Uganda, where young women were forced to bear children for military leaders. The poem “Slow Burn” offers the connection: how revelation (those personal disconcerting epiphanies or the knowledge of astounding suffering in the world) comes with a consequence: responsibility or madness, and how quick the human is to create a method to sidestep both and inhabit, rather, the unsettling middle ground. The speaker concludes this about cousin Marcus, the madman in the basement: “the same thing dragging his heart drags ours,/ Only he’s not afraid to name it.”

A second concept Smith exercises is the Portuguese saudade, a sigh or longing, often expressed in poetry and song. For Smith, this too, like duende, becomes an avenue for the exploration of “ways of naming the wound,” and then keeping it—like the risk-taking poet, like a citizen in this broken world—exposed, vulnerable and uncertain.

Rigoberto González