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What If You’d Gone Anyway?
Tin House is honored to have had the work of Tracy K. Smith grace the pages of our magazine. All of us would like to lift a proverbial glass of champagne and congratulate Tracy on her well deserved Pulitzer Prize. We believe it’s poets like Tracy K. Smith that keep the genre of poetry not only alive but living an ecstatic life.
WHAT IF YOU’D GONE ANYWAY?
Just to sense the liftoff, body clenched, anchored
Like a stone in a fist, then light, heart-in-your-mouth,
Ears agog, stomach churning away at a packet of nuts,
A few sips of something with kick? Wanting
Nothing more than to fumble like a clumsy janitor
With the wrong set of keys. To pause and decipher
Signs like: DOWN WITH THE EXPENSIVE LIFE!
GOD IS GOOD. BUY SOMETHING, STUPID!
You’d have taken your first few steps—through customs,
Past the caravan of orphaned bags on their ceaseless loop
Back behind the black rubber drapes and out again
Like ham actors—then maybe stopped short,
Wondering whether anyone had seen you,
Whether anyone’s hand closed around a sharp object
Deep in the pocket of a superfluous coat.
If there are really people who can tell a stranger
Not from what you say or the mark of your shoes
But from how light behaves after it hits your skin,
They’re probably so good they need only walk up to you,
Empty handed, and command: Come with me. No threats,
just fact: You have what I need. You are what I need.
And, knowing they are right, you obey.
Fear resembles desire. Even when the message is wrong.
Even when someone you owe nothing leans in,
Handles you as if once, in another life maybe,
You belonged to him. Sometimes now you imagine riding
Slumped in the back of that car as it speeds through the slums
Toward the dim room where you’re shoved into a chair
Or strung up to a pipe that gurgles idiot, fool under its breath.
You imagine the shadows charging in and out of the doorway,
Arguing protocol. They’re young. Hyped up on something.
Hungry. Shouting because nobody’s listening.
You duck your head when they raise their fists.
You stoop in this place
Where anyone who grows too tall
Is hacked right down.
Tracy K. Smith is the author of Life on Mars, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, as well as of two collections of poems: Duende and The Body’s Question. She is a member of the Creative Writing Faculty at Princeton University. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.