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;...
(The entire section is 2238 words.)