Goshawk, Antelope

by Dave Smith
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Goshawk, Antelope

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1765

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.

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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 feathering shinglesin storm or in the hour of burial,and dropped into absence where the antelope stood aliveat the fence of barbed wire, horns lifted slightly,hovering on hooves’ edge as if bored with the prospectof leaps, long standing and still.

Often voices of anger or anguish, such as those of mother and son, repudiate what is written in books as false or unusable “truth.” In “Between the Moon and the Sun,” as well as in “Apples in Early October,” the remembering boy relearns pain and its causes, mortality, “the apple’s brown ache,” and “the faint sweet bloodscent of rot” by eating green apples: “though the books warned us, we still/eat green apples and cramp our bellies.” The authority of experience is more eloquent than dictum, and Smith writes a good deal about his effort to define his calling and his problem as a poet: to make the words accessible, but not to make things and ideas captive in words. Even what is known of “the yawning toybox of the universe” must be known and known again, and still the mystery is beyond understanding:

and I will show the world withoutdreams, starless, mouthing itself, and the applesgrowing black with nothing to tell us. Nothing.

The message keeps coming, transmitted over the vibrating wires of memory; Smith tries throughout the volume to break the code, knowing he never will. In “Willows, Pond Glitter,” the death of a sunfish, “each scale set into position by/secret and implacable desire,” sets in motion a series of questions: “what I have seen and you have seen and nobody/understands, that enormous hunger.”

I swear I will come back if you can tell me what it meansto hear the world belch its ugly answers clear as the trutha child would be too scared to lie about.

Gradually, through poem after poem, the theme of death is developed, the knowledge growing that what happens to others will happen to us. There are dreams of dying, night dreams, and daydreams. In “Dreams in Sunlit Rooms,” the speaker visualizes “a pit as black as the secret bubble of a coal lamp,” and asks himself, “and is your child only sleeping/as precise as a glass statue this glary morning?” As this section ends, the poet takes up a new variation on the same theme, but a significant variation on which the poetic direction turns. The slow thread of guilt and acceptance of involvement in the facts of death, both real and imagined, begins to bind the human to the philosophic dilemma. For with complicity comes love, and with love comes forgiveness, both asked for and given.

In “The True Sound of the Goshawk,” the poet as remembering boy recalls throwing clods of dirt thoughtlessly at a swooping hawk, “that strange gesture which is like the swoop/of love.” Then something like penitence, something like “I am you,” passes between the boy and the bird:

   I did not knowwhy she cried out but began to howlmy child’s tearsas if I knew what she knew, that the heart tears openlike the goshawk’s mouth when it sees at lastwhat it has come for,

Such nameless atrocities and the avoidable cruelties lead to apology for even what was not done, but would have been. For example, the speaker in “Under the Scrub Oak, a Red Shoe,” remembers with love a girl and himself:

   I did not meanwhatever I said, but said it because she was so small, shecould not hide her fear and shivered on her back.

Smith is a reclaimer, as Jeffers said in “Triad,” who wishes “not to play games with words/His affair being to awake dangerous images/And call the hawks.” Cycle upon cycle, the natural and the human are recalled and narrated in that larger world that Jeffers knew, and Smith knows.

Goshawk, Antelope moves toward synthesis, for if the poet cannot affirm, he can at least bring the world together and hold it in his poem, making it new and finely wrought, if not better. Seeing a child fighting death, being sustained by tubes and hope, in “Hospital Memory During Storm,” he doubts there is any possibility that scientist or poet will ever take away “from that room, the awful pus of death.” He concludes that “passion/if you once believe in it, is a way of hope,” the world offering “no guarantee but of loss and life.” The disappointments and the sins of youth—riding a horse nearly to death, eating poisoned green grapes for a girl he cannot have and waiting to die—jostle one another in the poet’s memory.

“The White Holster” is an extended poem rich in redundancies of rhythm and wonder which speaks of a boy receiving at Christmas from his mother a gun, with the blessings of his soldier-father. Here as frequently, family motifs emerge out of the natural landscape—this time a bleak and lonely Christmas. The joy, the connectedness of love, and the unity of all the poet feels are restated in sensual and erotic terms in “Sea Change: The Rented House at Seal Rock, Oregon.” Waking from a dream of childhood, the speaker tumbles into the present and the sound of seals playing. Turning to the woman beside him, he thinks:

This is what I have waited for, the bodyof joy buoyant with forgiveness, allbodies seal-sleek rising from the fracturing waters.

The third section, “Settlement,” begins with a moving narrative of childhood, and before, of ancestry with its hard needs and demands. In a metaphorical sense, these poems move toward attempts to settle things—debts incurred, needs for forgiveness and for love—and toward a return even for a moment to some lost land of innocence, as seen in the poem “In the Yard, Late Summer”:

knowing ourselveswingless and bestial, we waitfor the sun to blow out,for the return of that firstmorning of pink blossomswhen we saw the dark stainsof our feet printingwhat we were on thatdew-bed of the world.

In the closing section, “The Round House Voices,” memories of the poet’s father, grandfather, and family are captured with words, poor as they are, which in a sense stay mortality.

Smith testifies to what all great poets since Sophocles have known: we are nothing, yet we are everything. What has been forgotten is revitalized here, as Smith offers simple, ancient answers made exquisite by language, made current by passion, and given veracity by music.

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