NYQ Books, 2012; 595 pages; Softcover, $27.95; Hardcover, $42.95
(Softcover) ISBN: 978-1-935520-51-1
(Hardcover) ISBN: 978-1-935520-70-2
Reviewed by George Drew
"Let me be fell: force I must be brief," as Hopkins so memorably said: Jared Smith is a master poet. As such, his body of work runs the gamut from the epic (his two-book masterwork, Song of the Blood) to the lyric (especially his most recent collection, Grassroots), and everything in between. A national poet in every sense, with the kind of expansive vision one would expect, Smith is contemporary and historical, tender and satirically irate, rebellious, iconoclastic, despairing and irreverent, but never hopeless or fashionably nihilistic. He is, however, demanding.
Admittedly, some readers will find Smith's poetry—the longer, more epic poems, I mean—far too grandiose, too verbose, even prosy, much as some do Whitman and Jeffers. I am not one of these, not when the verbal aesthetic is such a perfect conduit of the vision. Rather than prosy, I call it rhapsodic: Smith's is a poetry that sings, that chants, that preaches; it is revelatory, not merely descriptive or prescriptive; it makes music and it maps a vision that incorporates (de-corporates?) America, the world and the cosmos.
Let's be honest, though: no short review can do justice to a nearly 600-page opus like these collected poems. Just as each atom contains the universe and the universe contains each atom, so too each poem in this collection, and this collection each poem. It is a book consisting of nine individual collections that span a forty-year poetic quest. The thing to do is narrow the focus to one poem that illustrates everything this reviewer finds significant and admirable about Smith's work. That poem is on pages 380-81, and it is "Storm King Mountain."
Like many of Smith's poems this one opens with a very specific action in a specific location: the speaker and a friend, Pete, "chewing on a stalk of jimson weed" while admiring the Hudson River from their vantage point high up on Storm King Mountain; a scenic, winding road the locals call the Old Storm King traverses it from West Point north to Cornwall. From there, the two men "have a vista spread about" them, the only intrusion the sound of the granite bits "like paperweights" they toss out and down, to which they listen for a "distant clink."
That one word, "distant," signals what happens as the poem proceeds. It opens up, widens outward in time and space. This, too, is typical of Smith's poems. He accomplishes it through the use of metaphor in the first verse section: that clink "like the meshings of a gear," following with a "barge of rusting iron" described as a "dingy red square" on the "blue ribbon" of the river. These images mark one of Smith's great and recurring themes, the industrial age and its dark effects. He is, above all, a poet of the 20th Century and its legacy carrying over into the present:
Something dark is coming this way, he said.
I nodded, but what is a man to do.
The sense of dread distilled in these two lines propel us into the second verse section, which opens abruptly with
There was a military academy below us.
There was Vietnam. There were heart attacks.
There is training for war. There is war. There are heart attacks born of…darkness.
Next we encounter "clocks with metal tongues" and "gray-faced women" toiling their lives away in "foreign shops," that is, cheap labor. This section closes out with the speaker asking if it would be such a terrible thing if indeed "dark were coming this way." After all, he and Pete have "time to plan," "a vista" and are connected, "can feel the roots of the earth taking hold." Almost in a primordial sense, in time and timeless, there is nature, mother earth, the ultimate womb, the ultimate security. There is that necessary sense of belonging. This is a theme central to Smith's art, nature as the source of his inherent strength, his love, his unshakable belief; it is the source of a light that persists even in darkness.
If metaphor is one crucial technique Smith uses to widen the poem and its vision, symbol, light/dark imagery, and a Whitmanesque expansion through line length, catalog and a kind of pedal-to-the-floor burst of language are the others. Except for symbol all this really goes into hyper-drive in the last two sections.
The key symbol is established in the first section and carried over into the other three: the sun, giver of light and life. As such, it is described as "igniting our valley, "beating down on them," "igniting all it touches"; it is "a rising sun." Significantly, Smith uses participles for both verb and adjective; the sun and its light are ongoing, timeless. At the end of section three the speaker declares, "If something dark were to come this way, it would be filled with light," and the last two lines of the fourth section, and of the poem, remind us again of the sun's rays "igniting all it touches…/ contained within the dark." Smith is well- versed in modern physics and cosmology, and it is no accident that the sun, and its by-product light, set against both a terrestrial and cosmic encroachment of dark, outer and inner, is central to his poem craft and to his vision. The sun as symbol, extended through dark/light imagery, draws the poem together even as it allows it to widen.
Visually, this widening out is immediately evident in sections three and four; while Smith uses variable line length throughout the poem, like the universe, which as it expands does so at an ever increasing rate, they really pick up in expansion and speed in these two sections. All one has to do is look. This, along with the use of catalog, white-heats both the language and the vision he is trying to inculcate and project.
Section three opens, "We looked to the sunsets and waves of grain to our west" and then presents us with images of the natural, at times almost bucolic, world along the river and beyond, "two cosmologies" ; with deer filling the "dreams of our suburban alleyways" and "wild maidens" running "bare-legged into thickets of desire"; with what the speaker terms "these flames of life" as counter to that darkness he feels encroaching. And in section four the lines get even longer, some nearly spilling over, past the margin, as he brings together in a spasm of cataloging ("It…It…It) all that dark industrial imagery of "tons of metal," "crushed stone," "wrought iron," "electric needles" and "rock-paper-scissors" with an indomitable light; light that, despite the "small pills" we take "at night from bedside tables" and a "big black box barreling down a concrete river," despite the shadows that "come crashing through our windowpanes, despite darkness within and without, he is "eager to pump light into it."
The sun is the sun, and unlike even the Hudson River with its two tides, one going south and one north, Sol's tide of light will forever be coming in, not going out; it will wax out there across America, across the world, across the universe, and in here, in the human heart. Such is the crux of Smith's poetic vision, of his masterful art. This is not to say he is blind. Hardly. He is honest about the darkness both around us and within, sometimes brutally so, as one of his small lyrics, "Fossil," makes clear:
Plants that have been dead so long they have withered beyond dust
turn turbines that reach through night to light our books.
These things that grew from the sun
and were buried in stone
and we are the moths drawn to them.
Finally, then, as this masterful poet reminds us, there are flames of life, and there are flames of destruction and death. He knows this in his very bones and faces it squarely. In many of Smith's poems there is a dread, almost an invisible stream that supplies our lake of darkness, our Styx. It is as real as the sun. But without the sun, without its light, what? It is right here, right at this juncture of light and dark, that Smith positions himself, choosing to sing, to chant; choosing not that closed black box floating on a cement river, but the open fields and valleys and mountains and meadows and rivers; choosing the affirmative, the revelatory, the light. I call it rhapsodic.
George Drew was born in Mississippi and raised there and in New York State, where he currently lives. He is the author of four collections of poetry, Toads in a Poisoned Tank, from Tamarack Editions, and, most recently, The Horse's Name Was Physics, from Turning Point Press; a third, American Cool, was released by Tamarack in 2009; and a fourth, The Hand that Rounded Peter's Dome, by Turning Point in 2010. Drew was the winner of the 2003 Paumanok Poetry Prize, the 2007 Baltimore Review Poetry Prize, the 2008 South Carolina Review Poetry Prize, and was runner-up for the 2009 Chautauqua Literary Journal Poetry Contest, which also nominated him for a Pushcart Prize. American Cool won the 2009 Adirondack Literary Award for best poetry book of the year. A fifth collection, The View from Jackass Hill, is the 2010 winner of the X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press, 2011.