As days grow cold and short, it’s refreshing to encounter a book like Kristen Tracy’s Half-Hazard, which at every opportunity orients itself toward gratefulness, luck, and wonder. Tracy’s debut collection isn’t free of darkness—it lives in the real world—but it asks the reader to acknowledge their own resilience; they’ve survived every danger, returned from every underworld, and that’s remarkable and worth celebrating. Tracy’s practiced eye for what is interesting and strange, as well as life-affirming, makes this debut a worthy light to carry into the winter season.
In these poems, Tracy is interested in transformation—something becoming more than or other than itself—and she grapples with it in her weirdest, most arresting poems like “Having It,” which revisits the goose who lays the golden eggs, speculating, “I like to think she made the golden eggs / to bridge their lives.” The speaker is drawn to transformation precisely because she herself has experienced a fundamental remaking, explored in poems like “Unofficial Lady Bible”:
At seven, I could press
a perfect pie crust with my thumb. Ta da!
Decades passed before I would open
the door to that walk-in and arrive
as somebody other than myself.
Tracy even admires attempts at transformation for their ambition and strangeness, as in “Local News: Woman Dies in Chimney,” where that woman, “either fed up or drunk or undone” climbed into a chimney and “died there. Stuck. Like a tragic Santa.” This moment also exemplifies the collection’s buoyancy, the lilting brightness that underpins misfortune and even tragedy. “YMCA, 1971,” about a man dying of a heart attack just as the timed lights on the tennis court go out, highlights an unexpectedly beautiful moment nestled within a tragic one, describing how “everyone dropped their rackets, / and began running in the dark / toward the white glow of the fading man’s clothes.”
What gives this collection such depth isn’t just its buoyancy—that would be facile, even trite—but the sense that there’s a well of grief, pain, and trauma below the surface, and Tracy keeps choosing to turn toward its opposite, not from a place of ignorance, but from one of knowledge. This darkness is evidenced in “About Myself,” where “I wear my sadness like a coat / and the coat never comes off. / Its wooden buttons are fastened to me.” Although, Tracy acknowledges that “Others have had to catch much trickier knives— / all blade, no handle” (“Circus Youth”). And this is an undertow that never goes away: in “Urban Animals,” “He felt that TV ate my sensitive heart / the way boric acid eats through the beetle’s thorax.”
Tracy’s recognition of the world’s fundamental darkness gives greater resonance to poems like “To the Tender,” which concerns a jay fallen from its nest, asserting “even if the world is half bad, it remains / half good. While some of us sleep, our hearts / lie open, turned toward the tender, dreaming up ways / to thwart the crows.” Tracy recognizes that these efforts may be in vain, as in “Sometimes This Happens,” where the speaker’s father breaks the ice on a trough to let a cow drink, but “she’s swallowed a strand of wire. / This is the third cow he’s seen that will die this way.” Still, there’s the sense that tenderness is still worth choosing; even if the world thwarts us, there’s always the possibility that growth and transformation is waiting just ahead, as Tracy’ speaker says to herself at the end of “Teton Road,” “I have given you / all these chances. Take them.”