Duende, a term that was first coined by famous playwright Federico García Lorca, is a concept that represents a dark and elusive force through which artists are able to channel their creative power. Originally coined in relation to flamenco music and dance, duende has been used to describe multiple art forms and the depth of emotion, loss of ego and passion towards creating.
Tracy K. Smith’s 2007 collection, “Duende Poems,” deals with the trials of humanity, both individual and collective, as well as grief, loss, oppression, war and the healing that follows which is often insufficient, leaving deep and festering wounds. In the three-part compilation, she highlights her personal history as well as the history of persecution and violence in our modern world in the first part, the disintegration of a marriage in the second and in the third discusses the easy disregard for those alienated from society which we all have been culprits of. Together, this tri-part piece helped Smith write on how to be a citizen in this war-torn and damaged world with a sense of vulnerability and uncertainty that represents the poet’s journey and our own journey toward self-identity.
Smith was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts as the youngest of five children. She pursued a degree in English and American literature and Afro-American studies at Harvard and later went on to study at Columbia University. Smith has been consistently writing collections of poetry since 2003 and won the Pulitzer Prize for one of her publications in 2012. In 2017, she became the Poet Laureate of the United States and holds the position to this day. Her writing tends to focus on the evolution and destruction of the culture we know and investigates the dichotomy of the ordered world versus the irrational self she so vividly describes. Smith’s poetry is ironically known to embody the lyrical and rhythmic quality of Lorca’s writing style, which she does so beautifully in “Duende.”
Because I couldn’t possibly introduce you to all of my favorite poems in this collection here, I have chosen a couple that encapsulate the book. The opening poem is called “History” and is in itself a sort of stylized epic. Smith makes her way through human civilization starting with the Adam and Eve story, going through the discovery of America and the persecution of Native Americans, continuing into the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence, and finally arriving at the 20th Century. This time-travel shows how little progress we have made as a society. The poet explores humanity through the lens of duende, describing the history as a sense of deep feeling instead of logical and concrete events.
In the opening lines Smith writes, “This is a poem about the itch / That stirs a nation at night. / This is a poem about all we’ll do / Not to scratch.” The poet wants to make sure the reader is aware that this book will be political, but entwines a common feeling, the desire to scratch. She continues to pepper the story with recognizable situations such as “fatigue” and “deep fright,” interspersed with hints at different cultures and historical events such as “the language of pigment: / Indigo, yolk, dirt red. This meant / Belonging. What the women wove.” This poem sets the tone for the collection by introducing her abstract style and heartbeat-like rhythm of describing humanity.
The title poem, “Duende,” is similarly set in three parts, each dealing with different aspects of memory and the feelings that tie us to remembrance. Smith grounds the poem with talk of the “dry earth” and “the ramshackle family” of “tíos” and “Primitos,” “uncles” and “little cousins.” The writing itself is abstract, flipping between true history of the world and how society is structured in families and physical places, as well as her self-discovery of what those concrete aspects mean to her.
She also calls on the “bailaor,” the flamenco dancer and the mother of duende. The dancer’s “heels” have symbolically “notched / And hammered time / So the hours flow in place / Like a tin river, marking / Only what once was.” Ultimately, this symbol of the dancer represents duende’s power in the history of human life. We have worked hard to create and to flourish, putting all the heart, soul and blood necessary into our world, but as Smith notes, we are running in circles, carefully keeping track of our accomplishments and failures only to recreate them. In this way, “Duende Poems” is a brilliant and necessary book in studying our modern world.