A Poem by Tracy K. Smith

The Angels

Two slung themselves across chairs
Once in a motel room. Grizzled,
In leather biker gear. Emissaries
For something I needed to see.

I was worn down by an awful panic.
A wrenching in the gut, contortions.
They sat there at the table while I slept.
I could sense them, with a deck

Of playing cards between them.
To think of how they smelled, what
Comes to mind is rum and gasoline.
And when they spoke, though I couldn’t,

I dared not look, I glimpsed how one’s teeth
Were ground down almost to nubs.
Which makes me hope some might be
Straight up thugs, young, slim, raw,

Who bounce and roll with fearsome grace,
Whose very voices cause faint souls to quake.
— Quake, then, fools, and fall away!
— What God do you imagine we obey?

Think of the toil we must cost them,
One scaled perfectly to eternity.
And still, they come, telling us
Through the ages not to fear.

Just those two that once and never
Again for me since, though
There are — are they? — 
Sightings, flashes, hints:

A proud tree in vivid sun, branches
Swaying in strong wind. Rain
Hurling itself at the roof. Boulders,
Mounds of earth mistaken for dead

Does, lions in crouch. A rust-stained pipe
Where a house once stood, which I
Take each time I pass it for an owl.
Bright whorl so dangerous and near.

My mother sat whispering with it
At the end of her life
While all the rooms of our house
Filled up with night.


Tracy K. Smith’s most recent book of poems is Life on Mars, which received the Pulitzer Prize. A new collection, Wade in the Water, is forthcoming in 2018. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, was shortlisted for a National Book Award. She teaches at Princeton University.

The Poetry Section is edited by Mark Bibbins.