Goshawk, Antelope

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Goshawk, Antelope is the fourth major volume of poems by Dave Smith in this decade. The first three, Mean Rufus Throw Down (1972), The Fisherman’s Whore (1974), and Cumberland Station (1976), are informed by a sense of place—his boyhood growing up on the eastern shore of Virginia and in Maryland—which serves, as Smith has said, “an inevitable function in my poetry” without which “I could not write. . . .” This work bears the vigorous stamp of his love of the poetry of Richard Hugo and James Wright, by Smith’s admission: “When I read a book of poems, I look first to see if there are poems about rivers and oceans. . . . I want to know people who, in such places have always held the hand of Death, and want to shake my hand.” In this early work, much of the duende, the tragic sense of life, the oblique angle of vision, and the fictional sequences find their upward thrust to arc in Goshawk, Antelope.

Beginning with an epigraph from William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, this volume demands much of the reader. It moves through time like a dreamer; it is lyrically exhilarating, passionate, and rich with musical hauntings. It appeals strongly to the nonverbal, primitive level of response. It is enormously likable. It eludes definition and explanation.

About poetry, Smith has stated: “Poetry is not language. It is language made. A unique. I call it a dialect.” Poetry, he goes on to say, is not artifact, a coin to be bitten and then discarded. Goshawk, Antelope more than any of Smith’s work, is this poetry. It is airy, it soars, it reiterates, it darts and speeds and hurriedly stops in midair, like the goshawk that weaves itself through so many of these poems. Rarely, when it is opaque, it fails, but most often it succeeds because of Smith’s skill. The poems remind one of Walt Whitman, for Smith, too, is a poet of wholeness, and of Robert Penn Warren, and particularly of Robinson Jeffers. Reminders of Jeffers’ dark prophetic voice abound, in Smith’s natural symbolism, his vaulting of the wild and the violent, his sense of doom, and his strong images. But Goshawk, Antelope is more than influences. Smith’s is an original voice, combining physical and psychological realities, projecting human character, and juxtaposing the bizarre with the unsentimental truths of life. He also affirms in a particular language of delight, and, at times, ecstasy. There is never any danger, as there is with so many of Smith’s contemporaries, of confusing his poetry with prose.

Each of the book’s four sections takes its title from the section’s initial poem. Smith establishes himself in the first section, “Messenger,” as a poet of sounds rather than silences. He excells in the statement of emotion which recollects and asserts itself so strongly that it hardly seems to need the poet, seeming to spring full-grown from his heart. “Raw Light, Mountain Lake,” which is set, as are so many of Smith’s poems, in the Western United States with its mountains and deserts, achieves lyricism.

Among the diverse significances attached to the goshawk is the use of the goshawk as memory, which apparently for the poet is a function of the male principle. In “Goshawk, Antelope,” the antelope appears as the female, soft, hesitant, receptive, the immovable rooted one, the mother and giver, “changeless beneath the sudden whistle of gray.” The speaker sees “the accusing goshawk face of my father,” thus bringing out of the wind and the earth his two dominant symbols and the recurring and intermingling themes of life and death. Here Smith uses alliteration, harsh sibilants, and abrupt monosyllables to contrast with breathy h’s and liquid l’s, as he brings his news to the “dream-contending world.” Throughout, Smith works with compound adjectives and compound adjective-noun forms reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Jeffers, turning the stock epithets of Greek epic and English narrative ballad into new coin with an old ring.

I saw memory. He cameout of the strange clouded horizon like the dark of whippedphone wires and the quiet of first...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)