And now, as the Pythons used to say, for something completely different. Yes, it’s another another arrival in America, courtesy of Tracy K Smith, a former Poet Laureate; but it’s very different from last week’s. Read ‘The United States Welcomes you‘ and shiver.
So much to admire about this poem. There’s the perfection of its form, for one thing: the way it reproduces hectoring so vividly that it comes straight up off the page; the fusillade of questions, the way the first one echoes “are you now or have you ever been”. There’s the simple but devastating imagery: ‘… this dancing … your dark bodies/ Drink[ing] up all the light’; ‘mute/ As ghosts’. And of course there’s the mixture of tone: the recognisably official-ese, guilty-until-proven-innocent/we’re justified in being as unpleasant as we want for the sake of protecting Our Own: ‘what do you see that you may wish to steal?’. There’s circumlocutory evasiveness: ‘others brought by us to harm’. And there’s the haunting, and haunted: ‘Why this dancing? Why do your dark bodies/ Drink up all the light?’ Smith captures an extraordinary blend of paranoia and envy, loathing and longing; which brings me to the poem’s psychological acuteness, the way it anatomises a state of mind, with its projection—’What are you demanding/ That we feel?’—its un-owned disturbance—’What is that leaping in your chest?’—and terror—’What if we/ Fail? How and to whom do we address our appeal?’ She gets so much done.
And all of this brings us to the poem’s extraordinary grace—grace insofar as it responds to racism, hatred and injustice with condemnation, yes, but also with a profoundly empathic understanding that anger and hatred are often born out of fear and guilt. In the end we are can see how it’s the speaker who is pitiful, not the addressee. Power is actually, at the deepest level, powerless.