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Dave Smith 1942–

American poet, critic, and editor.

Shunning the confessional mode, Smith writes energetic, direct, experiential poems. The Virginia tidelands landscape, integral to his early poetry, is replaced by a Western setting in many of the poems of Goshawk, Antelope.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5: American Poets since World War II.)

Michael Heffernan

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Dave Smith's The Fisherman's Whore is [strong] stuff, exposing a gift of the kind reviewers often think "needs to be reckoned with"—in Smith's case not only by his readers and his contemporaries but by Dave Smith himself. The driving energy in his poems is a fusion of poetry and prose—the best elements of the cadenced line poised among the subtle transformations of the variable syntax a good fictionist uses. Many of these poems are stories or parts of stories, most of them Tidewater Virginia in locale, a place Smith has begun to stake out with an eye for detail and human nuance not unlike Faulkner's or Robinson Jeffers'….

Michael Heffernan, "Books: 'The Fisherman's Whore'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CII, No. 11, August 15, 1975, p. 346.

Helen Vendler

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[In Cumberland Station] Smith is not self-explanatory. His opening lies, often obscure, mysteriously referential, flatten out on the page in laconic presence…. After a while, the situations clear up. Smith is not a surrealist; implicit scenarios lie behind these brusque entrances. Smith, judging by his exquisite fitting of lines together, intends his opacity, his length of breath, and his peculiar style, in which full stops scarcely imply the end of anything and sentences which continue for lines and lines nonetheless keep a firm hold on themselves. (p. 407)

Smith is at his best writing about America—marshes, oyster scows,… Chicago, cross-country driving, singing as a boy in a church choir, visiting a decaying railroad station…. Cumberland Station gets better as it goes along; it lapses into imitation (of Hopkins, Thomas, and Lowell—like Berryman's earlier echoes) are forgivable in a second book, by a thirty-four-year-old poet. Smith at his best combines a gift for narrative with a gift for the mot juste—talents which rarely go together. He does not yet entirely trust his power of description to carry his feelings, and stops sometimes to make feeling explicit: the title poem ends,

                      Grandfather, I wish I had the guts
        to tell you this is a place I hope
        I never have to go through again.

Sentimentality and plain speaking sometimes get confused in this book. But Smith's best landscapes hover over meaning in a way both tantalizing and beautiful. (p. 408)

Helen Vendler, "Recent Poetry, Eight Poets" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Yale Review, Vol. LXVI, No. 3, March, 1977, pp. 407-24.∗

Helen Vendler

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[Bull Island] contained a number of poems on the life of a fishing village in the Virginia tidewater; The Fisherman's Whore continued this powerful geographic and social portrait and added some family poems; Cumberland Station includes both these strains with a broader canvas. The new poetry is autobiographical, but not necessarily rooted in the family or in the locales of Smith's early life. There seems no reason, given Smith's steady advance in art, to doubt that other powerful books will follow these.

Cumberland Station contains several sorts of poems. The ones I like least are some semi-allegorical ones toward the middle of the book, with names like "The Divorce," "The Testimony of Wine," "The Delivery," "The Sex of Poetry," and "The Dome Poem."… Thoreau's allegories are moving because they have the natural force of natural fact behind...

(This entire section contains 1438 words.)

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them, and Smith looks for the same degree of support from materiality; but the material in these allegorical poems too often seems cooked up to support the allegory. (p. 292)

The landscape and fishing poems, on the other hand, are exquisite. The real test of such poems is whether they can touch a reader who has never lived in the out-of-doors, who has never fished, who has never lived in that masculine society they evoke. The mystique of the male initiation (in the first hunt, in camping, in fishing) can seem, in less profound poets, perilously silly, but Smith's presence in these events is purely human, not gender-bound. In "The Last Morning" he wakes up early on the last morning out camping; others are still asleep; he goes down to the river to wash his clothes and he hangs them up to dry. As he sits naked beside the river, he could be anyone, aboriginal, at the beginning of American time…. (p. 293)

Smith dwells on strenuousness and on obliteration—the strenuousness of building, fishing, giving birth; the obliteration of shipwreck, disease, drunkenness, unemployment, death. In these receptivities he most resembles Hopkins…. The senseless events of life (floods, rot, disuse) move Smith as much as virtue (hard work, salvaging, giving birth). His brilliant sense of reality lights up even his densest work; in spite of a frequent murk—a deliberate murk, the confusingness of perception—one feels a promise of touching ground, beaching on some shore of the understood. But Smith did not always have the wisdom to keep conceptual bedrock a promise and a finding. In Bull Island … he was unable to refrain from giving the show away. One poem actually ends, "Ain't that life?" Others are simply heavy-handed in their offering of a "message."… And yet, Bull Island does not perform its descriptions in order to frame its messages: on the contrary, the poetical energy is in the descriptions, and the commentaries seem afterthoughts.

The Fisherman's Whore, uneven though it is, knows its own path, goes ahead surefootedly, correcting weaknesses in the poems it reprints from Bull Island…. There are moments of pure flawlessness in The Fisherman's Whore: one is the close of a poem describing a fire in the night. Smith is a child, still; [one who] wakes up to see that the man across the street has been lucky, losing neither of his two houses to the fire…. The candor and simplicity of the lines are suitable to the child, but nobody writes verse so expertly as this without a great deal of practice. The wonderful personification of the "slate grey hand of the sea"; the precision of naming (not "boats," but "the figures of boats"); the gifted adaptation of the Keatsian "and now" which brings a poem into a fateful present; the linking of the present "and now" with the verb of memory "I remember" knitting together the writing and the recalling; the irrational echo of the trap-weaving in the weaving of the boats; the odd conjunction of the fire in the night and the boats turning in the daylight; the rendering of the child's satisfaction of vision as he notices the "new, tidy hole in the landscape"; all of these felicities, which could not proceed except from a wholly natural alliance of sight and insight, announce a poet already capable of great control.

However, Smith has trouble, in The Fisherman's Whore, with managing his violence…. [He] struggles to find a way of incorporating into verse the sudden incursion of violence into life and its permanent aftermath, to contain the fact of horror in language without playing it false. He succeeds best by indirection in the fine Civil War poem, "The Bullets of Camden, North Carolina." The bullets here have lodged in trees, which are forever after useless for lumber. The chastity of language, in its perfectly steady "deepening," matches the wound eternally deforming the growth layers of the tree; the poem silently and invisibly enacts the ineradicable scarring of war. Smith draws no parallels, appends no message. His parable stands intact…. (pp. 294-96)

In fact, Smith's Civil War poems are the first worthy successors to Melville's Battle-Pieces. (p. 296)

In Cumberland Station Smith tries so many different kinds of poems that only an account which took notice of them one by one would serve. He takes on the voices of the watermen, a constraint on his own voice prompted by a wish for a simplicity of language not wholly native to him. He is an ornate poet by instinct and by youth, as Hopkins was. The brutal plainness of Hopkins' last sonnets is still not in his grasp, but he really does rival the sheer weight and mass of, say, Hopkins' fragment of an epithalamion. (pp. 298-99)

[Smith has a] seigneurial way with language. Like Whitman, from whom he has learned so much, he can be simply true, talking of families and dead fishermen; he can be distantly elegant, talking philosophically of death's "impeccable equality"; he can be colloquial (a "Bugeye" is a fishing boat); and he can be grandly metaphysical ("the elements are everywhere rising"), not to speak of brilliantly visual. (p. 299)

Smith, incidentally, writes good poems about being a husband and father. The Fisherman's Whore ends with a two-part poem about his wife's pregnancy and the birth of his daughter (more successful, to my way of thinking, than the slightly sentimental song for his son preceding them). In Cumberland Station, there is a poem called "The Gift of the Second Snow" in which Smith has been feeling somehow hemmed in by an "abstract hurt," and by "writing hard things." Then the second snowfall finally stops: the sun comes out and "frothed against the glass / until I would let it in." It makes the world come right ("no thorns / I could feel snagged in any metaphysics / I spread out"). Smith's wife puts her arms around his neck "like a whispered joy."… Not very complicated, but not false: and the description of the children is the best thing in it, with Smith's characteristic trouvailles which ring so unexpectedly true—small children in snowsuits do look like small pines, and when flecked with snow do look like small Christmas trees, "glittery, / speckled for their own celebrations." There are, one way or another, lots of ancestors in Smith's poems and I hope there will be more children. He is a family poet by nature, as much as he is a landscape poet.

Smith's wish to end on an upbeat, in song, though it is human enough, is still his Atalanta's apple. It is no pleasure to say that life will probably cure him of happy endings…. His own predecessor Hopkins went much the same route as Smith seems to be taking: seeing everything "all in a rush with richness" till life undid for him the dapple of the world. (pp. 300-01)

What will this poet of plenty write when he becomes a poet of deprivation? It is a question that leads to poems like Whitman's "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," and Hopkins' Dublin verse. We come nearest to this mood in ["Cumberland Station," which] seems to Smith the grave of his family…. Smith's indignation still refuses to take [the] glimpse of stunned doomed faces as the norm of life. He is a poet of the utmost ambition and the utmost care; his poems make other poems seem loose, unfinished; he is prolific; and he is in his midthirties, an age where most poets have only just begun to find a voice. (p. 302)

Helen Vendler, "'Oh I Admire and Sorrow'" (copyright © 1977 by Helen Vendler), in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1977 (and reprinted as "Dave Smith: 'Oh I Admire and Sorrow'," in her Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 289-302).

Calvin Bedient

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Cumberland Station is Dave Smith's fourth volume in six years—a puffing record. Yet running on passionately in an innocence of imprecision it stumbles with a beginner's mistakes. Take the lineation: the lines either lay out a clause matter-of-factly or enjamb with a dull thick halt, like chalk on a wet blackboard…. The line-breaks may even work against the sense, to no evident purpose, as in "But that's not prayer. Maybe it is / not even hope…." The poems churn on almost like prose, without lingering delicacies of ear. Their movement at best is but loosely interpretive, conveying a pell-mell pained objection to our "lost and wondering" lives.

Still, the writing lacks the precision of good prose. A certain imaginative tentativeness may be essential to poetry, but often Smith gives us muddle instead. His picture-making faculty is too little self-critical. "One stunningly / soft face in my brain's room stands up" is visually preposterous; and do brains seem to have rooms, let alone a single one? The similes wander in woozily. "Like purple dreams / graven on cold cell walls," Smith writes in a poem on fishing…. And so on … from muzziness up to looseness, that is Smith's usual range.

Astonishing all the same that a potentiality for greatness booms like a waterfall at the back of these poems. Smith's sensibility, Whitmanian in its ardor, has a fact-gathering, fact-hurtling force. It is excited and chiefly what excites it is the painful evidence of life's wreckage. Smith is one of those—like James Agee and Philip Levine—who recognize (in Agee's words) "the ultimately mortal wound which is living" and who venerate "the indignant strength not to perish." Into left-behind railway stations and baitshacks, into factories, farms, truck stops, shipyards he enters with immense love and respect and a total poverty of comfort or hope. This is Whitman in a failure of the sun, in unrelieved fellow-suffering.

Disregard the passionate humanity of the position and you can see quite coldly its emotional resources for poetry. Shared anguish, admired toughness, ecstasies of confused identification (as in "Blues for Benny Kid Paret"), a loyal infinitely delicate sense of continuity with the fathers, including poets, as in "and Roethke in his green war / gone like Whitman, bulldozed / like the secret river of the soul, but not ended, only / diverted, carving new banks"—these for a start. And indignation, bitterness, fury; wholesale indictments of the trouthating executives of Buick, politically simple burning complaints against working conditions…. There is still more in Smith—a sense of "facts / wind-worn and useless," of stripped-down truth ("Every face in this land knows what a lie is"), of dead-ending ("Sometimes I lie like that all morning and whisper to / snow scratching the walls"); this charged in the same solution with excitement over the acute and cooing life of poetry, and over vital battles, as well as the megalomania of spring ("Today I do not believe / a single sparrow will die but I will croak back his life"). He has center and weight but is complex and he moves.

Yet how well can he command this large, resonant instrument of feeling? This much can be said, that he has enough sensitive power to arrest and touch you, as in "How to Get to Green Springs," "The Luminosity of Life," "Cumberland Station," "Drunks," "The Testimony of Wine," and "Sailing the Back Water" (among others). He makes his impression even through ripples of imprecision, like fists seen pressed against a rainmisted window. (pp. 123-25)

What a poet we would have should Smith develop a passionate desire for accuracy. At present he may suppose that a populist poetry must chew off and spit out exquisiteness. But "Sailing the Back River" shows the contrary, the humanity possible in a painstaking eloquence. Poetry after all is a weapon against dumb silence and tangled complexity and needs a bright hard honed edge. (p. 126)

Calvin Bedient, "Reviews: 'Cumberland Station'," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1977 by Chicago Review), Vol. 29, No. 2, Autumn, 1977, pp. 123-26.

Dana Wier

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[In Cumberland Station the] reader is given sufficient example to learn Smith's way with poetry; to participate, accompanied and conducted by many clearly evoked characters, in the long journeys through time and space which are at the heart of this book. Time is quickly made flesh in the lives and deaths of the book's inhabitants. Space is delineated and transformed into place…. It is testimony to Smith's authority that the gathering of the multitudes of events, characters, details, and systems of diction do not become a confusing interplay of nostalgia and sentimentality. Smith selects his images, stories, and voices with an eye unclouded, and renders them in phrases, lines, and language certain of their strength. In the midst of so much, so many, Smith's sticking to roadways, railways, waterways, and forest paths is necessary. He leads us to his vision of America, often reminiscent of Whitman's, on roads, all of them at one time or another taken, which have on them the shadows of those who have walked toward the sun. It is most important that these shadows have changed the light by which we see…. Smith has taken what the passages of time and the displacements of space have made distant, and placed into the suspending context of good poetry what threatens to dissolve; drawing everything nearer, more personal, clearer. Light, pale, glowing, soft, shining, shifting, sinking, growing—in this poetry, light is imagination's and love's medium. In "Where We Are Today, You Will Notice Is," Smith writes that "light moves through like a monk," and it seems it does, shedding its grace on an exact and urgent foreground; its own power to arrange and change whatever it is in our fields of vision, the shimmering background….

Cumberland Station is a celebration, the public proclamations of the orders of our human professions. It is a densely populated book, a rich presentation of America's people, culture and landscape; but it is more because its poetry extends itself in metaphorical obeisance to the immense scale of our universe.

Dana Wier, "'Cumberland Station'," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1977 by Hollins College), Vol. XIV, No. 4, October, 1977, p. 18.

Marvin Bell

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Dave Smith's Cumberland Station is full up, pent-up, over-flowing with poetry. He has a world to report, sometimes a world of miners, fishermen and other hard workers, much of it remembered from Virginia and nearby. He has the language—itself brimming with particulars and good, pushy verbs. He can sing and tell stories, and he can do both at once. He has energy and power. He may even have vision. He takes risks in every direction, and dares to be outrageous, as in the ending of "Driving Home in the Breaking Season."…

  Damn death. Today I do not believe
  a single sparrow will die but I will croak back his life.
                                                (pp. 53-4)

It seems to me a brave aesthetic, which only a poet of Smith's astonishing energy, lush language, and vivid recall could hope to work beyond breathlessness and memory into vision and some ideas. But he is not foremost a poet of ideas, but of feelings. The momentum of his longer poems calls to mind the earlier poems of James Dickey; his responses to towns, the poems of Richard Hugo; his attitude toward hard-bitten memory, those of James Wright; and his language, when it barrels, even something of Dylan Thomas. He is high-spirited, even in anger, and he indulges serious hi-jinks in lingo. He is passionate and sometimes thumping. When he fails, he goes down in flames, a victim of overkill and volume. (p. 54)

Marvin Bell, "Five Books: 'Cumberland Station'," in Poetry (© 1978 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. LXXXIII, No. 1, October, 1978, pp. 53-5.

Peter Stitt

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With respect to pure verbal energy, the basic ability and desire to write, Dave Smith has to be among the most talented poets we have. It isn't just the amount of poetry he has produced … but the range evident everywhere in that body of work. He began as a precocious expert in the plain style, and has evolved into something almost as different from that as it is possible to be—master of the flowing, meditative, complicated, descriptive narrative of the ongoing flux. Along with its rewards, richness has its dangers; Smith is such a natural writer, and produces so much, that we may be in danger of losing our sense of who and where he is. The problem is exacerbated by this new collection. Till now, Smith has written mostly from the Virginia tidewater background we know to be his, from the life we see he has lived as citizen, traveler, poet, and teacher; all this primarily personal and sincere. But in Goshawk, Antelope, he has turned fabulator; the speaker of this volume grew up in the West, in Wyoming, and is living in Utah now; he tells us a story of his life, of the images that obsess him. It would be naïve and irrelevant to ask who this character is; instead we must wonder to what extent he has possessed this land, its language.

The Western style [of others] is sparse, plain, almost prosaic…. By contrast, Dave Smith retains his Southern roots—his style is lush, rich, full, his rhythms as expansive as those of James Dickey. At its heart, Goshawk, Antelope embodies a lack of correlation between style and content. The closer we look, the more inevitably Southern these poems appear to be, no matter their locale: the Western poem is descriptive, with a relatively simple abstract point, lesson, moral, woven into its texture; Smith's poems are loose ruminations that embody description almost as an afterthought. (pp. 207-08)

One result of this style is narrative obscurity. Perhaps it does not really matter what is happening in these poems; but they are mostly based on a story line of one sort or another, so the question does come up. Again the contrast with the earlier work is striking—the poems in The Fisherman's Whore and Cumberland Station are narrative, clearly so, and whatever point is made grows out of the story; in Goshawk, Antelope the reverse is more likely to be true. (p. 208)

What makes one hesitate about this book is what looks like an inherent glibness in the poet—it may be too easy for him to sing—coupled with too strong an ability to absorb and emulate the voices that impress him. The result is a strange hybrid, Western life and landscape rendered in a lush Southern style. Beyond this, however, we can recognize many strengths. Smith is at his best here when using an external image to reveal, comment on, an inner state. "Antelope Standing, Some Lying" concerns a man for whom the sight of these animals calls up feelings of mortality…. This is extraordinary writing; the lines subtly incorporate dark intimations while building to an unsettling sense of terror…. Memory is evocative in [the lines of this poem]—the sight of the antelope on the hillside brings back the sight of the women on the hillside—and thus the scene is bathed in feelings of mortality. Little wonder that the dreamed antelope at the end should seem harbingers of the thinker's own death. I cannot imagine any change that could improve this excellent poem. Dave Smith is a pure and natural writer. I regret that he gave up the ambitious project of his earlier books, to render the texture of his native area into verse, but perhaps it had become an albatross for him. He strikes me as a poet in the midst of a change, occasioned at least in part by his own relocation to the West. Given the strength of his talent, the varied music he has already made, we can confidently expect him to emerge into another strong vein. (pp. 208-10)

Peter Stitt, "The Sincere, the Mythic, the Playful: Forms of Voice in Current Poetry," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1980, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 202-12.∗

Helen Vendler

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Smith emerges in his new volume, "Goshawk, Antelope",… as a distinguished allegorist of human experience. The rich local color of the Virginia and Maryland sketches [in his earlier "Fisherman's Whore" and "Cumberland Station"] has been joined by local details from Utah … and a desolate Wyoming. The family (Smith's wife and three children, and shadowy parents and grandparents) continues to play a large part in the story. But these particularities are now subdued to looming shapes of universal fate and emotion.

Smith is torrential, impatient, exasperated. His language is theatrical, even melodramatic. His earlier masters are Hopkins, Whitman, Crane, and Thomas—poets whose temperatures, rarely temperate, become volcanic or icy at will. The "peaceable and healthy spirit" that Keats hoped to attain eludes such poets. They are outraged in pain or felled by ecstasy; at their most moderate, they are crucified by hope. It might be premature to expect from Smith, who is just thirty-seven, a calmer eye or a more ironic tone. He is an openhanded spender of language, fixing most characteristically on those moments of horror or excitement or rapture which in life demand no holding back, no irony, no mediating reflection. Of course, no poem can exist without mediation, and Smith's most estranged moments come in his consciousness of the gap between being and language. In a typical Smith poem (not, perhaps for that reason, necessarily one of the best), an extreme situation plunges us into extremity: a child is bitten in the face by a dog; he is taken to the hospital; eventually, he dies. Before he dies, he relives the terror of the dog's attack…. The fact that art—like religion, like medicine in this case—makes nothing happen sets Smith at teeth-grinding odds with his own vocation…. The counters that Smith opposes to "the wreckage of promise" are passion and hope—explicitly named but as explicitly doubted: "Passion, if you once believe in it, is a way of hope." Whether life is best considered in the agonized terms of its worst events is the question raised, often by Smith himself, throughout this book. (pp. 96, 99)

Many of Smith's poems assume the form of a passage from innocence to experience. Innocence is enunciable, but experience falls silent. An implicit paradox emerges: when the last innocence vanishes, there will be no more words. It is as if the poet had a stake in remaining to some degree the boy he was, the adolescent the boy became, the young man the adolescent became; if he does not, he will no longer be able to write. It is a peculiarly Romantic conviction that adulthood is inimical to expression and spontaneity, and no soil has been more fertile for it than a young country like America. Smith, who is all care in expression, can scarcely be said to hold this conviction consciously, yet the poems again and again suggest it. (p. 99)

The goshawk and antelope of Smith's title move through the book—the hawk predatory, paternal, talons stretched out in desire; the antelope mild, fleet, free. In the title poem, a goshawk plunges, "as shapeless as obsession," while the poet, imagining himself into the antelope, tries to "buck off whatever the air had sent down." The "aching wingless shoulders of the antelope" become linked with a mother's pain, obliquely caused by the father. The poet, fleeing like the antelope "from what was unseen and there, like the red print of a hand about to fall," wants to

                  see for once what had died
           out of my life but would never leave or
           come back as it had been
           like the slow growth of an antelope's legs into freedom
           and away from desire's black whirling dream.

Looking for what was, where it used to be, is the occupation of poets. (p. 100)

"Trying to understand" is one force that moves these poems, and Smith hurls himself repeatedly against recalcitrant mysteries. When he abandons direct battering, he takes to circuitous and dogged routes. Manifestation (the morning light, the look of the world) is what he is given; understanding and emotion are what he demands. The two possibilities he awaits are revelation (when manifestation meets understanding) and disgust (when it does not). (p. 101)

At his most truthful, Smith undoes his hopes almost as he utters them. When desire and hope overmaster vision, he risks sentimentality; when the hurling and the battering dominate reflection, he risks noisiness; when earnestness impels him, he risks explicitness. In syntactic momentum and surcharge of vocabulary, he risks excess; in ethical uprightness, he risks puritanism. He is Hebraic rather than Hellenic; flexibility and moderation are as foreign to his dour apocalypses as to his impelled communions. There are words that one would like, on first impulse, to forbid him: "love," "huge," "hungry," "joy," "fear," "hard," "memory," "kill," "dream," "longing," "boiling," "blood," "lost," "promise," "hope," "scream," "terror," "black," "naked," "dark," "wordless." He disarms our wish to censor his vocabulary by announcing that he knows his own repetitions….

Instead of avoiding those worn or too evident words, Smith will take them up, fling them on the page, force us to digest them anew in his contexts, trusting that they will take on a fresh meaning, or a reinforcement of their old meaning. (p. 102)

Smith's weight is unenlivened by humor, or self-mockery, or an easy urbanity; he is solemn, harsh, driven, obdurate, hungry for some guarantees—which he wants as much to create as to experience—of promises kept, love exchanged, hope confirmed. His bitter self-taste (as he names it from Hopkins) sits ill with his domestic yearnings. Since he is an accomplished watcher of inner states, he will write a changing poetry. He has come very far from his first, raw poems published in small chapbooks; the measure of the distance travelled is in part the measure of the talent. (p. 105)

Helen Vendler, "The Mind's Assertive Flow," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 19, June 30, 1980, pp. 96, 99-102.

Emily Grosholz

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Dave Smith, in Goshawk, Antelope, uses the elements of tribal unification, but ironically, admitting that they have been disenchanted. In particular, he takes over the totem, that figure which compounds the subhuman, the human, and the divine. In the title poem, he maintains a delicate balance between a playful and serious use of totemic imagery by emphasizing the tension between the polar terms of his metaphors, and the work of imagination in devising them. The goshawk and antelope, male and female principles, both are Smith's father and mother and are not: for how could such alien creatures be kin? The goshawk, for instance, is first presented as entirely Other, in a setting which is at once actual and a landscape of memory, the intense sunlight, long hours of driving, and some past trouble inducing Smith's double vision…. (pp. 301-02)

Memory and present vision move closer and closer as the poem progresses, until at the end they are wholly superimposed:

  the accusing goshawk face of my father in that dark room
  where I walked too late, where the glowing fur-tufts
  of candle shadows drift on her face and his

  and what was held has become, suddenly, lost like breath.

We can accept the totemic identification because it has been prepared so carefully in the poem. The wilderness converges on the poet; the poet's mind is also a wilderness where all his history converges on one moment, in which the totem names, if it does not dissolve, the mystery which drives the poem to its conclusion.

Again and again, Smith holds up the human to the nonhuman world, complicating the mirror-images with an ineluctable sense of alientation…. My only reservation about Smith's poetry is its obscurity, which must partly be due to the enormous difficulty of the themes he has chosen to address, and his refusal to treat them in any simple fashion; still, a poet's failure to communicate is no better than silence. (p. 302)

Emily Grosholz, "'Poetry Chronicle': 'Goshawk, Antelope'," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1980 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 301-02.


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There is a hyperbolic temper about Dave Smith and his work which could do more lasting harm than good for him. Surely, no one begrudges a hard-working, prolific, relatively young poet his glory; but the proverbial road of Excess can lead to the bypass of Wisdom, rapidly receding in the rearview mirror. Much of the enthusiasm over Smith's earlier books reflected the poet's own voice: tough, hardy, virile, strenuous, defiant. It's difficult not to like a poet of full-blooded verbs and assertive nouns, one intensely sympathetic to the "good hard poverty" of experience—to watermen, drunks and whores, the losers and the laborers.

But those who come to Goshawk, Antelope simply expecting more of the same prodigal performance will be disappointed. Smith's latest, largest book is his most ambitious writing: the colloquial violence of his early style, which could appear too easy or derivative, has been muted, curiously turned inward and extended at the same time. In the best poems of Goshawk, Antelope he develops his technique beyond clever victories of image or imitative form or exploitation of character and anecdote; and he precariously braves the Big Themes at the top of the tree where the hawk perches—and the crow. The result is more oblique and distinctive than anything before, less accessible at a single reading, and more of a piece than the variable excitement of individual poems in previous books.

In short, Goshawk, Antelope presents the mature Dave Smith…. After the earthy, particular titles of Smith's other book-length collections—The Fisherman's Whore … and Cumberland Station …—why the exotic air of Goshawk, Antelope? Part of the change is clearly geo/biographical: Smith is firmly settled in Utah now and is less dependent on the Virginia tidewaters of his youth and imagination. He is absorbing the plain terrain, with its animals, pronghorn and hawk, into his poems: there is a severity and diminishment to many of the landscapes in Goshawk, Antelope appropriate to a shift from dense East to sparse West…. Does the hint of myth in the title (goshawk as resplendent bird of Apollo, antelope as descendent of the fabulous unicorn) mean that Smith is transcending the water and earth of his past for the heavenly element of the bird, the holy hunt of the mythical beast?

Well, maybe. But though the book might allow, even encourage, such symbol-mongering, there are better approaches to the progress of Smith's work. (pp. 102-03)

Smith seems enchanted by the apparent wedding of antinomies in [Robert Penn] Warren, and in Goshawk, Antelope (the title itself being a kind of dialectic, taker and accepter) he risks the role of "abstractor" as well as the more familiar "human." If his antecedent books were heavy on the hard-thumping heart, in the "full and mature union" of the new book he stretches for some heady altitude as well….

The very first poem of Goshawk, Antelope hovers in … symbolic, sacramental rafters. Instead of plunging into the solidly detailed experience of baseball catchers or old fishermen or camping out, as before, Smith whips up a visionary overture, a murky allegory unanchored to any specific place or time. "Messenger" is the story of his vocation, of his receiving "speech" and "rainy words" as a child from a desperate man at his door "fumbling / for love, for the loving words / that might be knowledge." This abstract explicitness, this ponderous windup and high-kicking delivery, are sustained for the remaining pages of the poem.

For all its obfuscation, "Messenger" does establish the vocabulary of Goshawk, Antelope. The words that are likely to be remembered from Mean Rufus, Fisherman's Whore, or Cumberland Station—"whore," "poet," "drunk," "bitch," "bastard," "sea," "war"—are characteristic of the tone of those collections and typical of the old blood-and-guts, two-fisted Smith. Now he no longer needs to brawl like a bush leaguer grabbing for attention. Goshawk, Antelope is much less strident, and "Messenger" introduces the loftier vocabulary employed through nearly four dozen poems: "love," "knowledge," "dream," "memory," "time," "now," "then," "words," "truth," "hope," "change." This is ambitious wordage, more self-consciously Poetic than before, just as his epigraph (from Styron's Lie Down in Darkness) is more inward…. (p. 104)

Smith's survival of the perils of romantic Idea, especially in the longer poems of the book, is basically a testimony to the inventiveness of his style. He is not creative in small ways, contriving filigrees of image or irony, relaxing into a witty allusiveness; nor is his strength evident in a larger architectural or narrative clarity. Smith's gift is his articulation. In his most successful poems he has developed a manner of speaking which is direct yet evasive, syntactically complex, rhetorically powerful. When Smith is really on, he stretches and confuses his material like a pitcher who has found his rhythm…. Why, his method demands, should he settle for simplistic figure, mere lyric, straightforward story, plain truth? (pp. 104-05)

Goshawk, Antelope is gathered into four sections of about a dozen poems each. The initial poem of each part is the longest, providing the title for the section and recapitulating the Big Themes established in the opening pages. The symbolic leitmotif of goshawk, antelope (from the cover illustration) follows each of these pieces. The best of these … opens the last section of the book. "The Roundhouse Voices" is a vigorous elegy in Smith's best big-league style, a triumph of precision and suspension. As in "Goshawk, Antelope" and other poems in the book, Smith's principle of order is temporal, the dialectic … of now and then. (p. 106)

If the despair of his previous books sometimes seemed ingenious, one of the many masks of the enfant terrible, Smith's fierce hopelessness is more genuine in Goshawk, Antelope. His tragic sense, such as it is—like his deepened and extended language—appears less obviously luxurious here, less that of Hamlet than of Lear. Death exists, not just for characters …, but for himself. There is no easy comfort in the natural world, formerly bristling with life and history…. [And] even words fail, those coal-hard tools of the trade. There is a recurrent movement toward wordlessness in the book; at the end of one poem, the poet finds himself "afraid for the black wing of silence, / for what must wake in each voice / when it swirls up at daybreak / so naked, so uncertain, so lost."

But despite the siren song of the negative way and its atavistic speechlessness—brother tongue, perhaps, to the vast speech of the Big Themes?—Smith remains after all a man of this world, a wordsmith swearing at his anvil. He is still more prophet than mystic, too much a lover and a hater (and a big talker) to turn contemplative. He is a poet neither of blithe praise nor of patient negation. Smith is a contender, mind and heart…. (p. 108)

Smith is a poet of community and continuity, not isolation: hence love, joy, memory, words, the absolute importance of family and friends, the complexity of shared experience. Hence also the frequent fors and tos of his dedications. Smith's mission is also his method: to struggle with the lessons of his past and apply them to the present and his loved ones' future. The message is the same through Goshawk, Antelope: "Without love, how stand / in the wingless world?"

Does Dave Smith overdo it? Sometimes. At 127 pages, Goshawk, Antelope may be too long. At times, it suffers from unrelieved abstract flatulence; at others, it admits poems of relatively inferior imagination. (p. 109)

But this poet's hallmark has never been reticence, restraint, self-effacement. Smith is ambitious above all: his errors will be of plenty and not penury. For every poem in Goshawk, Antelope that disappoints there are several that can dazzle, in detail or in toto. There is a poignant memorial to his mother, "The White Holster" (with the wordplay "remembering how long it takes / to come into this loving / / room where she stands for me")…. And there is one of Smith's best poems yet, a vividly realized parable of the Fall and its consequences, with an exuberantly extended title and opening ("Over the Ozarks, Because I Saw Them, Stars Came"). (p. 110)

Michael McFee, "Into the Big Leagues," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter, 1980, pp. 102-10.