[Mother’s Day]: “Dusk” by Tracy K. Smith


What woke to war in me those years
When my daughter had first grown into
A solid self-centered self? I’d watch her
Sit at the table—well, not quite sit,
More like stand on one leg while
The other knee hovered just over the chair.
She wouldn’t lower herself, as if
There might be a fire, or a great black
Blizzard of waves let loose in the kitchen,
And she’d need to make her escape. No,
She’d trust no one but herself, her own
New lean always jittering legs to carry her—
Where exactly? Where would a child go?
To there. There alone. She’d rest one elbow
On the table—the opposite one to the bent leg
Skimming the solid expensive tasteful chair.
And even though we were together, her eyes
Would go half-dome, shades dropped
Like a screen at some cinema the old aren’t
Let into. I thought I’d have more time! I thought
My body would have taken longer going
About the inevitable feat of repelling her,
But now, I could see even in what food
She left untouched, food I’d bought and made
And all but ferried to her lips, I could see
How it smacked of all that had grown slack
And loose in me. Her other arm
Would wave the fork around just above
The surface of the plate, casting about
For the least possible morsel, the tiniest
Grain of unseasoned rice. She’d dip
Into the food like one of those shoddy
Metal claws poised over a valley of rubber
Bouncing balls, the kind that lifts nothing
Or next to nothing and drops it in the chute.
The narrow untouched hips. The shoulders
Still so naïve as to stand squared, erect,
Impervious facing the window open
Onto the darkening dusk.


“Dusk” is by Tracy K. Smith from Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Tracy K. Smith. Used by permission of the author and Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. Wade in the Water is available for order here.

Listen to Tracy K. Smith reading “Dusk” here.


Tracy K. Smith was born in Massachusetts and raised in northern California. She earned a BA from Harvard University and an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and from 1997 to 1999, held a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Smith is the author of four books of poetry published by Graywolf Press: The Body’s Question (2003), winner of the Cave Canem prize, Duende (2007), winner of the James Laughlin and Essense Literary Awards, Life on Mars (2011), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Wade in the Water (2018), winner of the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Poetry and shortlisted for the 2018 T. S. Eliot Prize. She edited the anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (2018), and her fifth collection, Such Color: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in October 2021. Smith’s memoir Ordinary Light (2015) was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. In June 2017, she was named U.S. Poet Laureate and in 2021, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Smith is the director of Princeton University’s creative writing program and hosts American Public Media’s daily radio program and podcast The Slowdown, sponsored by the Poetry Foundation. Publisher’s Weekly praises Smith’s “lyric brilliance and political impulses,” and Academy of American Poets Chancellor Toi Derricotte says, “The surfaces of a Tracy K. Smith poem are beautiful and serene, but underneath, there is always a sense of an unknown vastness. Her poems take the risk of inviting us to imagine, as the poet does, what it is to travel in another person’s shoes.” [Sources: Poetry Foundation and American Academy of Poets]

Links to selected reviews, interviews, and features:


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I chose “Dusk” for its frank expression of the double-edged sword that is motherhood (parenthood, really): We adore our children more than life itself, and if we do a good job of raising them, they one day will abandon us. To make it more painful, parents are reminded of the impending loss over and over again in a million small acts of rebellion and rejection during their children’s formative years. In “Dusk,” a mother recalls dinners with her daughter, an adolescent on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. The daughter expresses her new independence in ways that try her mother’s patience (we know there is conflict because of the word “war” in the first line): She won’t sit still, she rejects the food that’s lovingly prepared and “all but ferried” to her lips, and she is impatient to be up and away from the table. It is a situation with universal human resonance, and not just for parents: Who has not experienced a pang when the young people we love reject our well-intentioned gifts or grow away from us?

There is a lot to admire in this poem, rich with internal rhymes and alliteration, as in these opening lines: “What woke to war in me those years / When my daughter had first grown into / A solid self-centered self?” Smith is a master of the language, rhythms, and strategic lineation of literary poetry, using what one reviewer has called “densely imbricated metaphors” along with journalistically clear descriptions. For example, notice how the poem represents the course of a day, beginning when the speaker “woke to war” in the first line and closing with the “darkening dusk,” a progression that also reflect the youth and age symbolized by mother and daughter. Smith makes subtle use of tone, expressing yearning in her choice of verb forms (more on this soon) to contrast with the wry humor in lines like “shades dropped / Like a screen at some cinema the old aren’t / Let into.”

“Dusk” is a free verse poem rendered in one long stanza in plainspoken diction without meter or rhyme, a lyric that captures not just one moment but a series of moments from the past when a mother is beginning to realize that her daughter is flexing her wings. The poem accomplishes this through its choice of verb form, rendering most sentences in the form of continuing past action communicated by means of an auxiliary verb used with a series of main verbs. The word “would” or its elided contraction (“I’d,” “she’d,” etc.) appears twelve times in this poem’s sixteen sentences and thirty-nine lines.

We tend to associate “would + main verb” constructions with the subjunctive or conditional verb moods, but in “Dusk,” most instances communicate continuing action. That is, during dinners when the daughter had reached adolescence, the speaker’s daughter “would” do this and “would” do that—perch precariously on her chair, pick at her food, etc. Because writers are typically taught to simplify verb constructions whenever possible, I have to ask myself why the author so obviously made the choice to use a more complex construction.

One reason is to communicate multiple dinners and incidents instead of just one incident at one dinner, which acknowledges how a child’s individuation does not happen in one fell swoop but instead accretes gradually over the years. Another reason might be the superficial relationship that such a construction has with the conditional and subjunctive moods—all three verb forms use the same “would + a main verb” patterning. Subjunctive and conditional moods address not things that are but how they could be or could have been, and for this reason, are sometimes called the verb forms of human longing. The use of this construction accounts, then, for the sense of loss that permeates the poem as, from the vantage point of the present, a mother looks back to remember a daughter now perhaps grown and gone. Here again, the double-edged sword: We want our children to achieve independence, but how? Oh, how it pains us when they do.

In grammar, “mood” refers to a verb category or form that indicates whether the verb expresses a fact (indicative mood), a command (imperative), a question (interrogative), a condition (conditional), or a wish or possibility (subjunctive). In this poem, most verbs are in past tense, but they employ a number of different moods. As noted above, most are indicative, expressing past continuing actions during meals when the daughter was an adolescent—“I’d watch,” “she wouldn’t lower,” “she’d need,” and the like. Again, though, these constructions look a lot like those we associate with the conditional or subjunctive, and some of the sentences or phrases are actually conditional (“as if / There might be a fire . . .”) or subjunctive (“Where would a child go?”). We also see the interrogative mood in the poem’s opening question (“What woke to war in me . . .?”) and later when she asks, “Where exactly? Where would a child go?” In another departure about halfway through the poem, the speaker makes a pained exclamation: “I thought I’d have more time!” The implication is that she is now out of time, but something is also gained: That her body “repels” her daughter is a “feat” the mother has been working towards and an affirmation of steps taken towards independence. If the speaker is out of time, that loss feels compensated for by her daughter’s blooming youth.

The final deviation from the use of continuing simple past comes at the end of the poem. The last four lines are striking for not using that would + main verb patterning and indeed, for not using any verbs at all. In contrast to the rest of the poem’s sense of lost-in-time continuing action, these lines forge a strong image squarely rooted in the present: the daughter’s staunch stance in the face of impending darkness, “Impervious facing the window open / Onto the darkening dusk.”

We see the daughter’s restless spirit searching for her own identity and empathize with both her and her mother, recognizing that what can feel like ingratitude is really the journey all must make into adulthood. The closing image is mixed, expressing hope in a new generation poised to take on the future but also fear for what that future will bring. The mother understands that her daughter is “naïve” and doomed to experience sorrow from that impending darkness, but she also rejoices in the evidence of her child’s independence. The daughter looking out that metaphorical window affirms a continuing future, which more than counterbalances the continuing past of the rest of the poem. Fear and hope in equal parts—the perfect encapsulation of parenthood that, to my mind, makes this poem a good one to read today. Happy Mother’s Day, readers!


Rebecca Foust is the author of three chapbooks and four books including ONLY, forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2022, and her poems are widely published, in The Hudson Review, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poetry, Southern Review and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2020 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry judged by Kaveh Akbar, the CP Cavafy and James Hearst poetry prizes, a Marin Poet Laureateship, and fellowships from The Frost Place, Hedgebrook, MacDowell, Sewanee, and West Chester Poetry Conference.



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