In the House of the Judge
In the past dozen years, Dave Smith has established himself among the best poets born since 1940. Even in those poems that fail to make themselves understood—and there have been several over the years—one could sense the essential compelling power of his vision, his narrative drive, his ability to evoke powerful and complex emotions. All of that power is in this collection, which is nearly free of the clotted images and troubled syntax that in earlier volumes occasionally made Smith’s poems elusive. Still, it is noticeable that throughout this book, forms of the verb hunch, suggesting crouched power waiting, occur five or six times; Smith is chiefly a poet whose eloquence springs from great energy just under control. Reading him, one sometimes thinks of hot-rodders who remove the mufflers from their cars to achieve greater efficiency, or the old-time steamboat racers on the Mississippi who tied down the safety valves risking explosion to get speed: When these tactics work, there is no substitute for them, and in this splendid book, they work most of the time.
Smith’s sense of place and his attraction to a specific landscape—Tidewater, Virginia—have long characterized his poetry; even when writing about the American West, as he does so splendidly in Goshawk, Antelope (1979), there is at least the undercurrent of comparison with what has come to stand in his work for home.
This issue is now fruitfully complicated. A primary theme in the collection is that the search for home can be a considerable preoccupation, and that home can genuinely turn out to be where one finds it, as one looks down on a sleeping child’s face or back at the lighted window of a house at dusk.
The book is arranged in four sections, the first, a single poem called “Building Houses.” This haunting poem evokes childhood memories of houses going up and of a house burning, possibly as the result of the speaker’s mischief; he recalls the events fragmentarily, letting the memorable images—the accusing face and voice of an old woman, fire leaping into the night sky—have their sway so that piecing the events together is difficult. The end of the poem, however, stands as an epigraph to the poems that follow:
Crone, mother of shades, where did you send them? Tell mewhat house built of blue worksong and truth casts its undying light of forgiveness.I want to go there, son and father................................The city of men cracks around me.I know what hope bears, the unbuilt,that dream of grace raging—but where are the builderswho nail the dark and the light,who rose freed, singing together?Where is our home, our sorrow and love?
The second section, containing fifteen poems, arcs over the country from Tidewater, through Salt Lake City, back to a New York hotel, and finally to an unspecified place, about which the speaker, addressing a lost friend, says,
Jesus God, I’m as far from home as you,uselessly trotting out sleek wordsto make a place real for children.
The third and fourth sections, though they contain separate poems that stand independent from one another, come close to being sequences as they are arranged here. The third section is a group of poems that evoke a distant love given the name Celia. The name’s conventional poetic connotations and the often dreamlike recollections of the sequence lift these poems from the realm of autobiography; one ceases to be interested in whether this is something that happened to Smith, because one is so interested in what is now happening to the speaker.
The fourth section contains the title poem; these fifteen poems are based on the author’s experience with a house in Montrose, Pennsylvania, where he and his family spent a year making a home in a temporary place of abode.
After the invocation in part 1, then, the collection moves to nine poems which explore the speaker’s childhood and youth. The first poem, “Photographic Plate, Partly Spidered, Hampton Roads, Virginia, with Model T Ford Mid-Channel,” is as carefully detailed as the title; this photograph, of a time when the Chesapeake froze deeply enough to support a car, turns out to include a figure identifiable as the speaker’s grandfather. The poem is a moving instance of the hope that many people harbor—that a thing gone, looked at long enough, will come back—or, failing that, will make itself clear:
Under the ice where they walk the dark is enormous.All day I watch...
(The entire section is 2063 words.)