Dave Smith Essay - Critical Essays


Dave Smith is a poet of inclusion. Working during a period characterized by emotional coolness and reductionism, Smith has been one of very few swimming in the opposite direction. His poetry is unashamedly passionate—exuberantly so. He almost never merely outlines a theme; he elaborates it with lavish care. Given these tendencies, it is not surprising that the characteristic Smith poem does not sit neatly on a single page. He has helped to bring back the long poem, both meditative and narrative. Smith is a brooder, a storyteller, and a moralist.

For these poems, Smith has created a rhetoric based on long lines and longer sentences—a rolling terrain of accumulating phrases and clauses. He is not, usually, a metrical poet, but rather a poet of sweeping cadences and accentual rhythms. His style is particularly southern: affinities with Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and James Dickey are evident. Like them, Smith tends toward the baroque. He has built an ornamented and oratorical style that stands somewhere between colloquial idiom and grandiloquent rapture.

Much of Smith’s work is a poetry of memory and yearning. The memories are personal, familial, and communal. In the best poems, they are also universal. Some of his work tries to give retrospective testimony to his (and everyone’s) inarticulate youth. He is often sneaking up on the young boy, forcing him to explain himself, and encountering some kind of evocative silence or near-silence. To recapture the past is part of that severe yearning in Smith’s poems. Passionate desire, however, can carry the poet in other directions: to see something clearly enough, to trust one’s perceptions and one’s heart, and to answer nature’s alternately strange and familiar glance. Smith, like the poets of ages past, is simply after the meaning of life. The intellectual life alone, without the felt underpinning of the physical life, is something that Smith distrusts, just as he has little patience for the questions of poetic form until there is the pulse of significant content.

A frequent device in Smith’s work is the generative image or symbol. From the early “Medieval Tapestry” through such poems as “The Spinning Wheel in the Attic,” “Under the Scrub Oak, a Red Shoe,” “Blue Spruce,” and “Crab,” Smith uses his central image not merely for verbal accuracy or to invoke a single correspondence, but as a center for the intersection of many planes of thought and feeling. In such poems, as in the story poems with their enigmatic, fabulous glow, there is the hope—if not the proof—that all experience is connected in a way that one may ultimately grasp. Smith’s vision is clearly in the romantic tradition.

Generalizations about the memory-laden nature of much of Smith’s work have obscured the variety of ways in which his themes are developed, just as generalizations about his style do not reflect the wide range of experimentation in his work. The thorough reader will find many Smith poems that are short, lyric outbursts—and even poems in highly patterned stanzaics. Mean Rufus Throw Down contains pieces using full or subdued rhymes in couplets, tercets, and quatrains. In this volume, the variety of techniques may be accounted for as the searching experimentation of the young poet. Each volume, however, has its traditionally patterned efforts. “The Collector of the Sun,” in Goshawk, Antelope, shows Smith at home with the difficult couplet quatrain. In Homage to Edgar Allan Poe, there is a studied return to the manipulation of older conventions (one aspect of the “homage”). For Smith, this kind of discipline is not always rewarding; it often seems that such strictures are at war with his truest poetic impulses. Still, one would not want to do without “The Abused (Hansel and Gretel),” a sonnet, or “Under a White Shawl of Pine,” with its delicately flowing alternating rhyme quatrains.

Because Smith is usually expansive, the terse, compact sketches of film stars (such as “Doubling Back with Bogart”) in The Fisherman’s Whore are welcome surprises. Because he is often unrelievedly solemn, the grim whimsy of “The Suicide Eaters” (in Goshawk, Antelope) reminds readers that there is range to the emotive notes that Smith can strike. Smith’s work is fully of his time (and place, one must add), yet fully transcendent. His is a voice that sometimes breaks stride with the patterns of standard written syntax as Smith grasps for the inclusive statement. He frequently sends parts of speech rolling into one another to form a redeemed mother tongue with some of the comfortable scaffolding torn away. Over and over again, however, Smith’s magnetic cadences draw the reader in, focus our attention, lead the reader to resolve what he or she has rubbed up against, and then the voice is clear and penetrating. It is a voice that has a proper place in the timeless chorus.

“The Dark Eyes of Daughters”

The ongoing drama of being a husband and father often leads Smith to the backward-looking stance (as his own childhood and his own parents are recalled), but also sometimes plants him firmly in the present and looking to the future. In “The Dark Eyes of Daughters,” one of Smith’s poems of domestic concern (Goshawk, Antelope), focus is achieved by a careful orchestration of images and figures of speech.

The poem recounts a moving instance of “love’s division.” The speaker, angered at his daughter’s cat for attacking a tame quail, finds himself outside kicking the cat, and then, in almost the same instant, realizes that his young daughter is looking on, a witness to his brutality. In this moment of unplanned but decisive action, the father has become implicated in complex losses. Simply enough, the world will never be the same. He knows it and wishes that his daughter’s knowledge and heart will not be altered; but his wish is futile.

The poem provides an experience focused by a series of similes and metaphors and by a careful metamorphosis of images. The heated action and the distance it has created are figured in the noise of “the back door/ still banging like a ripped/ shred of memory.” The impulse to wish the truth away is like that of “a man in a car/ that’s dropped something/ to howl down a quiet street.” The oppressiveness of the truth is a “light/ banging hard overhead” and “this slow gouging/ of sparks that is the world.” The “intense unloosening stare” of the cat’s eyes gives way to consciousness of “the fixed and heart-dark/ pupils of the child startled/ to see what cruelty is.” The revealing sun, the cat, the daughter, and the painful truth she is learning are all brought together—in spite of the speaker’s contrary wish. The “sun the color of a cat” falls “on her struck face that is/ learning to mouth these words/ without end.” Finally, the sun, “like flint, strikes.”

This same sun, at the beginning of the poem, was weakly invoked by the phrase “the dew dulls out.” The sun as flint reaches back to the “gouging . . . sparks.” The “spatter of quail feathers” at the poem’s opening looks forward to the penultimate movement, the daughter’s words “a beginning already long lost/ like pawprint or feather.” The absorption of this tight structure of reverberating images into the illusion of artless, passionate utterance is characteristic of Smith’s best work and especially of the more modulated passions of Goshawk, Antelope.

“Night Fishing for Blues”

More ambitious, and perhaps more central to Smith’s developing manner, is “Night Fishing for Blues,” in Cumberland Station. This poem exemplifies Smith’s interest in the physical life, especially the actions of work...

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