Tracy K. Smith

Self-Portrait as the Letter Y



I waved a gun last night
In a city like some ancient Los Angeles.
It was dusk. There were two girls
I wanted to make apologize,
But the gun was uselessly heavy.
They looked sideways at each other
And tried to flatter me. I was angry.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to bury the pistol,
But I would’ve had to walk miles.
I would’ve had to learn to run.




I have finally become that girl
In the photo you keep among your things,
Steadying myself at the prow of a small boat.
It is always summer here, and I am
Always staring into the lens of your camera,
Which has not yet been stolen. Always
With this same expression. Meaning
I see your eye behind the camera’s eye.
Meaning that in the time it takes
For the tiny guillotine
To open and fall shut, I will have decided
I am just about ready to love you.




Sun cuts sharp angles
Across the airshaft adjacent.


They kiss. They kiss again.
Faint clouds pass, disband.


Someone left a mirror
At the foot of the fire escape.


They look down. They kiss.
She will never be free


Because she is afraid. He
Will never be free


Because he has always
Been free.




Was kind of a rebel then.
Took two cars. Took
Bad advice. Watched people’s
Asses. Sniffed their heads.


Just left, so it looked
Like those half sad cookouts,
Meats never meant to be
Flayed, meant nothing.


Made promises. Kept going.
Prayed for signs. Stooped
For coins. Needed them.
Had two definitions of family.


Had two families. Snooped.
Forgot easily. Well, didn’t
Forget, but knew when it was safe
To remember. Woke some nights


Against a wet pillow, other nights
With the lights on, whispering
The truest things
Into the receiver.




A small dog scuttles past, like a wig
Drawn by an invisible cord. It is spring.
The pirates out selling fakes are finally
Able to draw a crowd. College girls,
Inspired by the possibility of sex,
Show bare skin in good faith. They crouch
Over heaps of bright purses, smiling,
Willing to pay. Their arms
Swing forward as they walk away, balancing
That new weight on naked shoulders.
The pirates smile, too, watching
Pair after pair of thighs carved in shadow
As girl after girl glides into the sun.




You are pure appetite. I am pure
Appetite. You are a phantom
In that far-off city where daylight
Climbs cathedral walls, stone by stolen stone.
I am invisible here, like I like it.
The language you taught me rolls
From your mouth into mine
The way kids will pass smoke
Between them. You feed it to me
Until my heart grows fat. I feed you
Tiny black eggs. I feed you
My very own soft truth. We believe.
We stay up talking all kinds of shit




“Self-Portrait as the Letter Y” is reprinted from The Body’s Question (Graywolf Press 2003).