Analysis

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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...

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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 and sport in the region he knows best. To that level of concern is added another dimension as the region’s historical ghosts drift through the poem, helping to universalize its experience and revealing an unexpected theme. The urge to test one’s self, to do some single thing well, excites Smith in a way that is reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, although Smith’s language is more emotionally charged. The black woman in “Night Fishing for Blues” is a version of Smith’s heroic figure; heroic not in worldly stature, but in the full giving of herself to the task at hand. What she does defines her; no explanations are necessary. However, in this poem, the woman is something more. She is part of a loose allegory, for the poem is a complex fable.

The scene is Fortress Monroe, Virginia, where the “big-jawed Bluefish” slam “into banked histories of rock/ pile.” This place is near “where Jefferson Davis/ hunched in a harrowing cell.” Already, before the central event is under way, Smith has built a context that links the present experience with the long shadow of the Civil War. Military metaphors identify the masses of fish as “convoys, a black army, blue/ stained sequins rank after rank.” To this place the speaker has “come back”—but how far back?

The fishing begins in the unexpected company of three African Americans: two men in “Superfly shirts” and “a grandmotherly obelisk.” The speaker becomes involved in a pitched battle with the fish, and the intensity builds with the proliferation of the enemy and the fisherman’s success: “I haul two, three at a time, torpedoes, moon-shiners. . . .” The woman watches, transfixed, “canting/ to Africa, a cluck in her throat, a chain/ song from the fisherman’s house.” The speaker cannot, or will not, take the time to understand this song or its meaning. He has reached a pinnacle of perfect action: “I know I have waited/ a whole life for this minute.” The woman is fishing well, too, but the speaker pays no heed to her call for recognition: “I ain’t doing so bad/ for an old queen.”

In a wild crescendo of hauling and slinging lines, the speaker feels for a moment that he has “caught the goddamndest/ Blue in the Atlantic. She screams: Oh my God!” He has hooked the woman’s face. In an instant the ignored fellow-fisher has become—or has been mistaken for—prey and enemy. Readers have seen a tragic accident of innocence, ignorance, and selfishness, as well as an act of fate.

When the hook is removed, the woman and the speaker set to fishing once again. Now, their lines tangle; they have “caught each other but we go on for the blue blood of/ ghosts that thrash in the brain’s empty room”—a contest of old habit with no real aim. Then the two admit that nothing else has been caught; the fish have ceased to bite; they can untangle themselves at last. Says the woman, “Sons they done/ let us go.” In her final action, the woman shows the others how to pack the caught fish. At dawn, as the speaker returns home,

thousands of Blues fall from my head,falling with the gray Atlantic, and a pale veining lightfills the road with sea-shadows that drift in figureeights, knot and snarl and draw me forward.

This vague epiphany is a movement forward in the speaker’s moral life. “Night Fishing for Blues” is a compelling poem, a visually rich, taut narrative that suggests the reenactment of old passions and the redeeming power of passions of another order. The images of blue and gray, of weaponry, and of lines tangled and freed work their way through the poem with the hard tug of the inevitable.

Urgency is in every movement and in the hard rivets of sound and rhythm: “to pitch through tideturn and mudslur/ for fish with teeth like snapped sabers.” This is torrential Smith in high gear, at the verge of excess, collapse, and presumption, but making a grandly successful world of words that is beyond the reach of craft alone.

“The Tire Hangs in the Woods”

A representative poem of return, “The Tire Hangs in the Woods” (Dream Flights), may be one of Smith’s best. In this poem, the speaker journeys back to a place where he first “went to dream” and where, later, he and his friends “stared, with our girls, into the sky.” While in many of his poems Smith’s persona returns only in memory, in this piece memory is spurred by the actual return to that “secret place” whose totem is the hanging tire. The stream of memories is clustered around this central image, first introduced in juxtaposition to “somebody’s rubber” which is “hung on a berry vine.”

Once in focus, the hanging tire becomes the “black holes” of lifted mouths in the Churchland Baptist Church, and thus an evocation of religious mystery and yearning. The generative image is then likened, in turn, to genitals, “Poe’s pendulum,” “an arc of blackness/ gathering the hung world in its gullet,” and the “sexual O” of a girl’s mouth. In its cumulative power, the hanging tire is the “Ghost-heart of this place” where the speaker’s present and past have intersected and where imagination has given memory a reality of the highest order. This poem is, at bottom, a romantic poem. The unpromising woods behind a friend’s house take the place of a Tintern Abbey or a lime tree bower.

Under the spell of the occasion, the mute but mysteriously charged adolescent is fused with the articulate, worldly-wise adult who returns. It is as if they have each longed for this meeting, each shoved his feet in the circular space and swung out to a point in the woods’ darkness where time vanishes. The poem conjures up the touching of a truth—a miraculous truth—as present and past meet. The truth is not reducible, however, to direct utterance: It is pure, vital feeling willed and caught by the transcendent imagination.

These woods are, simultaneously, a place of death and of hope. They hold “thickets of darkness” and are marked by a “dead-end” and by “stillness . . . ticking like throat rattle.” Paradoxically, they are also the setting for the trials and triumphs of rites of passage: the fistfight over a girl and love’s early, earnest promises. In the present, the speaker gives the tire a shove “and sure enough I hear the tick and all that was/ is, and a girl straightening her skirt walks/ smack against you and screams.” Transitions like these (note the pronoun shift) keep the poem suspended between now and then, life and death, and time and timelessness. The hanging tire—still, spinning, or swinging—mediates the poem’s potentially erratic flights. In the tire’s haunting shape and motions, the movement toward revelation takes place: “me in the tire spinning my childish words” to “swinging like a secret in the dark/ woods” to “I . . . swing in absolute black./ The whine of the rope is like a distant scream./ I think, so this is it. Really it.” In Smith’s conclusion, colloquial idiom stands in place of the traditional romantic’s ecstatic shriek, shrunk down to the simile of the rope’s whine.

“The Tire Hangs in the Woods” carries forward and refines many of Smith’s stylistic habits. In it, he makes use of the long, complex sentence that sprawls over many lines and gains power by accumulation. The first fourteen lines of the poem comprise only two sentences, and many other sentences roll on for five or six lines. As the poem moves toward its conclusion, however, the sentences become more and more compact until the final movement, in which there are four sentences in three lines. This increased frequency of full stops is an effective device for moving the poem toward closure, toward the silence that is left to speak after the words have done all they can. Syntactical complexity in this poem does not fall into the knotty opacity of some of Smith’s earlier work, nor are his rhythms here as clotted with spondaic bursts. Still, Smith is lavish in his use of sound patterns to release and spring strong rhythms. A line such as “gone dull as soap-scum, the husband grunting” is reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins and of the strong-stress lines of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

The yard in which the tire hangs is, until Smith’s poetry touches it, a very ordinary place—a place, in fact, to be overlooked, if not avoided. It is to traditional poetic settings just what many of Smith’s central characters are to heroes: solitary, obscured, abused, just barely surviving. It is a dying place whose dignity Smith senses and celebrates. Smith’s treatment of place, image, and self in this poem links “The Tire Hangs in the Woods” to the great American tradition. Here, the singing and soaring of Walt Whitman blend with the down-to-earth speaking of the birch swinger, Robert Frost. Yet it is entirely his own, the kind of masterpiece that only Smith could write.

“Southern Crescent”

Like many of the poems in Cuba Night, “Southern Crescent” 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. Riding the return train trip with his wife from her father’s funeral, the poet records the desolate America through which only old track beds pass. The scene aggravates the sadness he feels for his wife’s loss as 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 our actions may unexpectedly fulfill another’s needs.

Fate’s Kite

Smith’s collections after Cuba Night show him to be working at a slower pace, but the poems themselves make it clear that there is no slackening of intensity. While both Night Pleasures and The Wick of Memory present new poems in the context of selections from earlier volumes (The Wick of Memory being a fairly comprehensive representation of Smith’s career), Fate’s Kite stands alone during this period as an orchestration of new work that seems conceived as an independent book-length project. Each poem is thirteen lines, and the lines keep to a fairly uniform length throughout. This extended use of a predetermined pattern is unique to Smith’s work, lending a sense of compression and closure that, until this experiment, had not been characteristic. Like much of Smith’s work, these poems trace a frustrated yearning for the sacred. Though they encompass a wide range of images, tones, and settings, Smith’s restless, hungering spirit and the daring formal decision combine to forge a special unity.

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Smith, Dave