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Duende by Tracy K. Smith

The Duende is a mythical creature in Spanish and Portugese folklore. A duende is usually a small sprite or gremlin that plays tricks on people. Federico Garcia Lorca interprets this mischievousness as  “the creative and ecstatic power an artist seeks to channel from within. It can lead the artist toward revelation, but it must also accept and even serenade the possibility of death.” This book of poems has tapped into both connotations of the word.

Front Cover

As soon as I found out what a duende was, I had to reconsider the front cover. The impishness of the child hiding behind hole-driven metal is every bit her inspiration in the “Lorcan” sense. The book balances social commentary that is both jarring and everyday. For example the poem “I Killed You Because You Didn’t Go to School and Had no Future” holds all of “death’s branches that we all wear” (A quote by Lorca included in the foreword) by having a telling title and a reticent ending:

Your voice crashed through the alley

Like a dog with tin cans tied to its tail.


Idiot pranks. At the sight of your swagger

Old women prayed faster, whispered.


Their daughters yelled after you. Little shit.

Delinquent. You couldn’t even read


What we wrote about kids like you. Today

heat wends up the neighbors houses


Like fear in reverse. Your uncle

Wears trousers and perspires


Into the seams of his shirt. His only belt

Is full of new holes and nearly circles you twice.


The title of the poem was actually the note found near the nine year old’s dead body in Rio.  Nothing is heroic or romanticized about it. The irony of the note being left next to an illiterate child gives the poem a sordid feel. One is not really sure who killed the child, but the reader can assume that no one helped him. No one even helped this gremlin child learn to read instead of mock him. His future was handed to him because he didn’t have the ability to make any other.

The language of the poem is repeated in different areas of the book. Her style of writing is personable. I say that because it’s deliberate and spare (without high flung excessively compound vocabulary), but also because much of the poetry in this oeuvre is interpersonal. Either she is requesting some kind of observer’s position or she has the characters speak for themselves. The majority of her poems are first person centered, which makes the dialogue seem like its admitting itself along the way. I highly recommend Duende for those interested in a book of poetry that takes individual suffering and serenades in a voice that echoes many.

–Shatara S. Downs

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