cover image Ordinary Light: A Memoir

Ordinary Light: A Memoir

Tracy K. Smith. Knopf, $25.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-307-96266-9

This somber memoir by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Smith (Life on Mars; Duende) reaches around the deep Christian piety of her Alabama-born mother to the author’s own questions about faith and her black identity. The work opens with the death of her mother from colon cancer shortly after Smith graduated from Harvard; then it looks back to the 1970s, when Smith and her four siblings were growing up in Northern California near the Travis Air Force Base, where her father was stationed as an engineer. The memoir is episodic; each chapter takes a memory of Smith’s youth and holds it to the light for scrutiny: her visit to her mother’s hometown of Leroy, Ala., when she was in first grade; her enrollment in a “mentally gifted minors” school that put her on the accelerated education track and led to years in majority-white schools; a lecture on sex education from her older brother Conrad; and her exchange of ardent love letters with one of her high school teachers, who was married at the time. Throughout the book, there is the strong sense that Smith’s mother’s love and faith held the family together. And, though God could not cure her mother, Smith finds her own way back to her faith by searching for a less circumscribed, more expansive way to understand her relationship with her mother, which she found in writing poetry. This is a nuanced memoir with a quiet emotional power. [em](Apr.) [/em]