Crystal Simone Smith is the recipient of a Touchstone Distinguished Books Award for 2022 for the volume Ebbing Shore (Durham, N.C: Horse & Buggy Press, 2022).
Commentary from the Panel:
Ebbing Shore by Crystal Simone Smith accomplishes far more than most haiku collections dare to attempt. While adhering to the aesthetic principles of traditional haiku, Smith aims for a larger purpose in her work than an exploration of nature and/or personal inner enlightenment. While much of the innovation in haiku today consists of pushing the boundaries of language and form, Smith expands boundaries in another direction, focusing on and engaging with history in a way seldom seen in haiku collections. Composed in the fields of plantations that once held generations of enslaved people, the haiku in this spare and unassuming chapbook present a powerful and authentic response to this ugly piece of American history. Coming at a time when significant efforts to erase or ignore this history are taking place around the country, this collection honors the lives of people formerly enslaved in these places, helps keep the memory of their suffering alive, and raises questions about whether the past is truly behind us. Interspersed with the haiku are photographs taken at the various plantations Smith visited over the two-year period, adding another layer of tangibility to the book. When Smith writes:
in one brick
she draws us into the moment of realization that that thumbprint likely belonged to an enslaved person forced to work in the place where she now stands. Later in the collection, she writes:
my son’s neck
low hanging moss
and makes clear that the legacy of slavery is very much alive. How can one read the above haiku and not think of the long history of lynching and the continuing violence against African American men today? That the haiku is from the point of view of a mother adds to its power as we are reminded that every person lynched in this country was someone’s child. And while these poems hold political and historical significance, they are written in an understated way, as authentic haiku with vivid, concrete images. Smith doesn’t need to use the word “lynching” to get the message across, and her haiku are more powerful by remaining suggestive rather than telling.
tick of the home’s
With all the talk of a “post-racial society” and claims that slavery is a thing of the distant past, here is evidence of how very recent it was that human beings were forced to live their entire lives without freedom. The clock is still ticking. The country has still not reckoned with the legacy of slavery.
In an essay on the topic of including the political in poetry, Tracy K. Smith, the U.S. Poet Laureate at the time, wrote, “Poems willing to enter into this fraught space don’t merely stand on the bank calling out instructions on how or what to believe; they take us by the arm and walk us into the lake, wetting us with the muddied and the muddled, and sometimes even the holy.” The haiku in Ebbing Shore do not tell us what to think, but instead, they lead us by the arm and walk us to the fields, letting us feel the pull of history in the present moment.
I permit myself
a sip of water
Reading this collection reminds us that there are many reasons why we write and many functions poetry may have beyond personal edification. A poem can be a record, a reaction, a question, a reaching out for connection, a gift, or serve a combination of purposes. That we are nudged to ask ourselves why we write is one of the gifts of this collection.
the starry sky
Touchstone winners receive a crystal award to commemorate their selection. See the complete list of winners of both Individual Poem Awards and Distinguished Books Awards in the Touchstone Archives.