Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2238
For fifteen years, beginning in 1970, Dave Smith turned out poems, volumes of poems, at a startling pace. Criticism and fiction, too—but mostly poems. It was already a lifetime’s work, a significant corpus with a special signature. If anyone seemed a candidate for burnout, Dave Smith so seemed. Cuba Night appears five years after Smith’s last volume, The Roundhouse Voices: New and Selected Poems, and that volume, as the subtitle indicates, was largely a retrospective. If Smith has slowed down, his art has not wavered. In this new volume it is as individual, powerful, and provocative as ever. Norman Dubie’s claim that Smith is the greatest poet of the American South is hard to dispute. Indeed, Smith may take his place among the foremost writers of any kind that the South has produced. Perhaps only William Faulkner is clearly his better, but then Smith is not yet fifty. On the evidence of Cuba Night, his powers of invention and craft are still ascending.
This collection’s first part, a single long poem called “To Isle of Wight,” magnificently orchestrates Smith’s major themes. On a drive through the environs of Richmond, Virginia, the speaker holds simultaneous awarenesses of the South’s distinctive historical burden and its contemporary drama. Passing through Shockoe Bottom, “where the state began,” he now encounters “all-night joints for lawyers cruising! after coke in Volvos.” Echoes of Robert E. Lee, Patrick Henry, and Edgar Allan Poe mix with litanies of a black evangelist on the radio. Nat Turner’s promise is weighed against “Dark youths in a Comet … fingers! lifted… weapons,! if any, hidden.” Moving in a fixed geography, Smith also moves through the past of racial hatred that still pits the landscape. But there is a vision of something else. Stopping to visit his brother (or is it just an old friend?), he sees the other man’s beautiful daughter astride a horse—a self-aware image of freedom: “’She sings with a band. All black except her.’” Hearing the music, the speaker’s mouth becomes “thick with booze like a slime of birth,! as if words almost burst to her music.”
For the words of common humanity, of racial brotherhood, cannot yet be formed. The girl’s freedom is not his. Entering Isle of Wight County, the speaker’s imagination fuses the girl’s music and the radio preacher’s litany—“I can’t tune either one out.” Suddenly, his car comes upon blacks who “leap from a hearse straddling the church! road that swerves into mine.” He veers, crashes, survives the accident, but finds no helping hand. He gasps “’I’m kin!’”—perhaps a genetic truth, but one with no power here. Not yet. A voice like the girl’s pierces the night:
We can all sing like that.
Faces swirl away, wind-wakes of passage.
Please listen, I cry. I know what she means.
Just let me up, just help me say the words.
Smith’s quest to find the words is the usual business of the poet, aspiring against fate to say the unsayable. His gift is to come closer than most, and his strength is to make the yearning itself intimately tangible. Smith trusts to bits and pieces of story, to hard-pulsing rhythms, and to hovering syntactical structures that draw the reader into the felt experience. The theme of getting it said runs through the book, most pronounced in poems such as “Writing Spider,” subordinated and subtly analogized in those such as “The Canoe in the Basement” and “On a Quilt in the Bennington College Library.”
At the end of “Writing Spider,” which opens part 2 of the collection, Smith doubts that the spider can jump across her web “from time to time.” Yet from that doubt the poet casts out a filament of memory poems—elegies, really—and invites the reader to jump with him. A flash of sun brings a flash of memory of “Snow Sundown,” a missing friend, a childhood chum eventually lost. With this loss, as with the others, Smith meditates on how home itself is lost over and over again. He also mourns and celebrates the racy aunt of “Palmetto Special,” whose ways were connected to the small-town railway station that is also gone, who taught the young boy “heat, ice cream, and palmettos,” whose love was real though the men in her life changed each time the nephew visited; the father of “Championship Fight,” splitlipped in a bar match, still able to reach to the back seat of the car and squeeze a limb of his son and daughter “until the fat car rocked, and left us grinning”; the Baptist Navy captain turned teacher of “Bible School” who tried to make the boys fearful, repentant, and inspired—but utterly failed when Celia joined the class:
“She turned us hot inside, wormy, swollen! with death’s appetite.”
Against these elegiac pieces, Smith sets a sequence of descriptive poems, poems of place, that envision place in its temporal layers. In “Crab House,” the repetitive sounds of the swamp workboat mark the time; its “kapucka-kapucka pushes! the dark wave in over the mud,! then pulls it back so the skulls shine.” In “Local Color,” mussels are “necklaced gleamers along the ashen shanks! of a pier long abandoned to the mud’s shimmer.” The swamp and the shoreline are mythic places in Smith’s work. Here in the mud, life and death meet. Here man makes an uncertain toehold. Many poems in Cuba Night echo these notes; overlapping images of the swamp, miasma, and darkness, suggest the bodily self’s link to the murky world of decay and fecundity. “Crab House” concludes, “I listen! as the swamp grinds its teeth, feeds, begins to reek.”
This second movement of the book builds to “The Canoe in the Basement,” a poem which perfectly blends the elegiac strain with Smith’s swamp-and-backwater vision of human experience, and also with the unfinished business of all poetry. The illusory basement voyage is “like the slipping cadences of a craft! whose purpose is traversingl life’s malignant, fathomless holes.” Smith remembers and honors the man who chose to build a house by the Chesapeake Bay “whose first concrete layersl seeped until the swamp’s mucky oozing spread like a fleshy brown butter.” Paddling in the “slick darkness,” the rower enacts and reenacts the primal quest. Though the upper stories of the house are secure, his larger life is down in the swamp-basement. And so is the poet’s: “when I go down! in my chair to write, I see youl begin to conceive it, the outrageousi boat proud upon the earth’s/ scummy upwelling, its carriage a soul’s/indifferent to despair as to joy.”
In Smith’s work, the past, though often conjured, invades the present until the present seems merely the scab-skin through which memory oozes, perhaps all history, no longer merely memory or history at all, but destiny.
The collection’s title poem, “Cuba Night,” is positioned at the end of part 3. It is a poem that personalizes history and historicizes personality. In the shaving mirror, the speaker faces his mortality, questions “is anything therel more than a choice, a will to live?” The memory of President John F. Kennedy’s choice—his political line regarding Russian missiles in Cuba—mixes with that of young love’s complications and the way in which the daily business of shaving is always a new beginning and a small death.
Smith builds to this crest in the book’s emotional journey first through a pair of elegiac place poems that stress the business of making and doing that binds lives and cultures together; then follow poems about love and about the fragility of life. In “Treading Clams at Egg Island,” the opening of cherrystones lures the clammers into the mysteries of the black waters, of night, of the unknown—but also into a ritual of identity handed down through the generations. In “Welders,” Smith evokes “the astonishing moment of a maker’sI clang and bang of vision,” always outlasted by the thing made. In “Camellias,” the poet conjures the death that lurks in beauty, while “Careless Love” is one of this often grim collection’s pure joys. “Three Valentines” reveals Smith at his most tender, the poet as husband and lover and also a man of humor. In the poem’s first section, “Clay,” Smith ponders how the material itself is nothing—no figure or shape—and how our lives are like that clay until some ’kiss and slap” creates an urn—a design:
How rare, how precious this seems then,
a little excrement, saliva, Stain
of seasons, your endless touch
that makes of darkness underfoot
a shaped hold of love and thought, a bowl
of clay dreamed where sun swells up the local dust.
Characteristically, Smith launches the fourth part of Cuba Night with poems burdened with the world’s sadness and the stubborn perseverance of the living. In “A Pinto Mare,” earnest, workaholic robins carry on while the mare suffers, unable to bring forth its half-born foal. The speaker tries to examine, to understand, this mistake in the natural order, but the robins, even the mare, go on indifferent to his need to question. In another poem, a “Fallen Tree” becomes emblematic of a family history: “We cut it up, we take it away, and what it holds also.” With all this constant threat to life, why risk it? Why suffer it? A poem about a suicide, another about a typical roadside tragedy, and then one reaches the book’s emotional heart. “Loneliness,” cast in husky yet delicate quatrains that approach the measure of hymn, sings of the pain of incomplete knowledge, of trivial tasks repeated, of life’s evanescence, the past’s ghosts, “the future’s guess.” This long meditation shows Smith comfortable in adapting traditional form to his needs. He lets the familiar form speak, lets its sturdy associations link all ages of man.
This linkage weighs heavily on Smith. It is the hallmark and burden of his art, an art that is capable of revisiting momentous themes and freshening them. The suburban Smith shoveling snow at dusk cannot help thinking “This is the hour of feast, ancestorsi stooped on high plains.” When his shovel digs into the black crust, it “splits it/like the skin of the dead child the father hasi snagged on an unseen limb-stump inside the fresh hole.” In “Deer in the Yard,” up late trying to write, Smith ponders the significance or whether or not he had seen a deer, whether or not the news blaring on the television about Israelis shooting a Palestinian mother in the back has something to do with his own anxiety, whether the pen in his hand is like a gun waiting to confirm something by betraying it. “Gargoyle” reminds the reader of how people are all scarred, haunted, dark, talking loudly when they pass the places that invisibly hint of change and death—even when there is no obvious reason “to fear the past’s untranslatedi beasts, the present’s tongue- tied selves.”
In balance with the opening, the collection’s closing section is a single long poem, “Southern Crescent.” Like a number of other poems in this collection, it can lay claim to being a new American masterpiece. It is a rich meditation etched out of narrative detail, dialogue, feeling-drenched thoughtfulness, and precise imagery. On the return train trip with his wife from her father’s funeral, the poet records a desolate America through which only old trackbeds pass. The scene aggravates the sadness he feels for his wife’s loss, its debris mixes with his guilt at never having liked his father-in-law. Still, searching for the right words, hovering near them, he manages to be of some use to his wife. They pass a poor shack where a man gives them the finger, his hovel lit up for Christmas, the lights flickering. Only the speaker sees this, and he is forced to laugh. In explaining what happened to his wife, in their interchange of question and answer, they reach a new intimacy beyond the formalities of the grievous occasion. An unexpected perspective is gained, and an unexpected peace. Like Smith’s best work, this is a small story perfectly told—or shown. The reader is left to feel the connection between the woman’s father, the man along the tracks, and the ways in which one’s actions may unexpectedly fulfill another’s needs.
Smith’s work is fully of his time (and place, one must add), and yet impatiently transcendent. In this collection, he often breaks stride with the patterns of standard written syntax as he 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. Although these dislocations cause minor difficulties on first readings, Smith’s magnetic cadences draw us in, focus our attention, lead us to resolve what we have rubbed up against. His voice then becomes clear and penetrating. It is a voice that has a proper place in the timeless chorus.
Sources for Further Study
Detroit News and Free Press. March 25, 1990, p. L7.
Library Journal. CXV; February 1, 1990, p.87.
The New Yorker. LXVI, April 2, 1990, p.113.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, January 5’ 1990, p.67.
The Southern Review. XXVI, Spring, 1990, p.456.
The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXVI, Summer, 1990, p.99.