In the House of the Judge

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2063

In the past dozen years, Dave Smith has established himself among the best poets born since 1940. Even in those poems that fail to make themselves understood—and there have been several over the years—one could sense the essential compelling power of his vision, his narrative drive, his ability to evoke...

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In the past dozen years, Dave Smith has established himself among the best poets born since 1940. Even in those poems that fail to make themselves understood—and there have been several over the years—one could sense the essential compelling power of his vision, his narrative drive, his ability to evoke powerful and complex emotions. All of that power is in this collection, which is nearly free of the clotted images and troubled syntax that in earlier volumes occasionally made Smith’s poems elusive. Still, it is noticeable that throughout this book, forms of the verb hunch, suggesting crouched power waiting, occur five or six times; Smith is chiefly a poet whose eloquence springs from great energy just under control. Reading him, one sometimes thinks of hot-rodders who remove the mufflers from their cars to achieve greater efficiency, or the old-time steamboat racers on the Mississippi who tied down the safety valves risking explosion to get speed: When these tactics work, there is no substitute for them, and in this splendid book, they work most of the time.

Smith’s sense of place and his attraction to a specific landscape—Tidewater, Virginia—have long characterized his poetry; even when writing about the American West, as he does so splendidly in Goshawk, Antelope (1979), there is at least the undercurrent of comparison with what has come to stand in his work for home.

This issue is now fruitfully complicated. A primary theme in the collection is that the search for home can be a considerable preoccupation, and that home can genuinely turn out to be where one finds it, as one looks down on a sleeping child’s face or back at the lighted window of a house at dusk.

The book is arranged in four sections, the first, a single poem called “Building Houses.” This haunting poem evokes childhood memories of houses going up and of a house burning, possibly as the result of the speaker’s mischief; he recalls the events fragmentarily, letting the memorable images—the accusing face and voice of an old woman, fire leaping into the night sky—have their sway so that piecing the events together is difficult. The end of the poem, however, stands as an epigraph to the poems that follow:

Crone, mother of shades, where did you send them? Tell mewhat house built of blue worksong and truth casts its undying light of forgiveness.I want to go there, son and father................................The city of men cracks around me.I know what hope bears, the unbuilt,that dream of grace raging—but where are the builderswho nail the dark and the light,who rose freed, singing together?Where is our home, our sorrow and love?

The second section, containing fifteen poems, arcs over the country from Tidewater, through Salt Lake City, back to a New York hotel, and finally to an unspecified place, about which the speaker, addressing a lost friend, says,

Jesus God, I’m as far from home as you,uselessly trotting out sleek wordsto make a place real for children.

The third and fourth sections, though they contain separate poems that stand independent from one another, come close to being sequences as they are arranged here. The third section is a group of poems that evoke a distant love given the name Celia. The name’s conventional poetic connotations and the often dreamlike recollections of the sequence lift these poems from the realm of autobiography; one ceases to be interested in whether this is something that happened to Smith, because one is so interested in what is now happening to the speaker.

The fourth section contains the title poem; these fifteen poems are based on the author’s experience with a house in Montrose, Pennsylvania, where he and his family spent a year making a home in a temporary place of abode.

After the invocation in part 1, then, the collection moves to nine poems which explore the speaker’s childhood and youth. The first poem, “Photographic Plate, Partly Spidered, Hampton Roads, Virginia, with Model T Ford Mid-Channel,” is as carefully detailed as the title; this photograph, of a time when the Chesapeake froze deeply enough to support a car, turns out to include a figure identifiable as the speaker’s grandfather. The poem is a moving instance of the hope that many people harbor—that a thing gone, looked at long enough, will come back—or, failing that, will make itself clear:

Under the ice where they walk the dark is enormous.All day I watch the backs turned away for the one facethat is mine, that is going to wheel at me the secrets of many.

Other poems—“Snake: A Family Tale,” “Running Back,” and “Smithfield Ham”—lead the reader who already knows something about Smith’s Virginia background to look hard, trying to discern the line between recollection and fiction. The question is finally irrelevant; the speaker of “Running Back” is more nearly a professional player than Smith ever was, but Smith has drawn on what he has lived of the game to do something much more complex and realistic than, say, James Dickey’s “In the Pocket.” That is not high praise, actually, for it should be added that when Smith settles down to this imaginative act, the first thing he foregoes is any attempt at watered-down metaphorical speech. When this running back speaks, he knows what Smith knows and talks about John Keats, uses words such as “inevitably,” and then turns around and says things such as, “I’m paid to crack a rock that growls.” The effect, if one thinks in stereotypes rather than in specifics, is momentarily surprising but finally satisfying.

The six poems that end part 2 move out from Virginia, taking various attitudes and tones; for example, “Outside Martins Ferry, Ohio” is a moving tribute to James Wright, and “An Ode to Salt Lake City” is a poem that greets with mixed kinds of anger the news that the prophet Spencer Kimball had received a revelation admitting black males to the Mormon priesthood. The section closes with the first poem quoted here. “No Return Address” is a strong poem about loss and faint hope based on a letter from an old friend from Tidewater days; there is no way to respond to it, because the writer has withheld his address. The letter, like a streetlight the speaker ends watching as he stands in his sleeping son’s room, is a “message [he does not] understand. On and off.”

Part 3 strikes at least one reader as evasive at times, though several of the seven poems in this section are among the best in the collection. The opening lines of the first poem, “Love Blows in the Spring,” demonstrate part of the difficulty:

How speak of this? How make those wordsas smoke from the mouth, soft,rises and not entirely is a silencebut enough so our sighs, like wings, mayspread and be something the face can keep.

There are moments when this syntax almost becomes explicable, but then it slips away again leaving unanswered questions about unsupplied question marks. The passage’s persuasive rhythm, however, cannot be denied, and this is one source of the sequence’s hold on the imagination: Once again, the reader conditioned by confessional poets will wonder how much of this is fiction, forgetting that it is in fact presented as fiction. That is, the reader is not given the kinds of clues provided by a Robert Lowell, that the poet was the man who suffered and was there; the speaker of these poems observes and remembers but does not add to this any self-indulgent complaints about how hard it is to write poems. So one is left with a convincing character, Celia, a waterman’s daughter once loved by the speaker as well as others, who has become lost in a not-quite-specified way and whose image will not let the speaker alone.

The question of Celia’s precise fate comes up in “To Celia, Beyond the Yachts,” a beautiful account of the speaker’s return to the scene of an earlier tryst with her; he remembers her leaping “to lie in that sea.” At the poem’s end, that image is recalled, and it is not easy to know whether it suggests drowning or a moment of craziness; watching a hawk, the speaker wants

to know what his eye knows,why love made you leap down a turning tide, a loopingrise and fall of scream I hear you make with him.I look at the far faces of men who could love you enoughif you sang up out of the sea . . . each is one I am,skidding line in the wake, paying out a huge hunger.

The last poem in the sequence, “Sister Celia,” indicates beyond doubt that the character is not dead; the speaker returns to find her, recalls earlier meetings, pronounces energetically and sometimes bitterly on the nature of love and time, and ends with a wrenching expression of the desperate hope that loss and time can somehow be confronted:

Listen, whatdo we wait for except life’s little bell zinging,collect, the message a trip home, all the way?Fool, before it’s too late answer. Say yes. You’ll pay.

The constraints against quotation in the present format are hard on this poem; its seventy-five longish lines run to more than seven hundred words—a solid narrative—with room for the narrator’s brief reflections on what he sees and remembers. At the same time, the poem is economical, every gesture adding to the tone’s slow crescendo. It is not Smith’s most elegant poem, but it is among his strongest and most absorbing.

Part 4 of the collection is again a sequence, though each poem’s integrity makes it clear that it was not conceived as such. This group of poems gives the book its title and is less obviously fiction than the preceding section. For one thing, In the House of the Judge is dedicated “to Sue Smith, who made it possible for me to live in her father’s house in Montrose, Pennsylvania.” So when one comes to these last poems about the Judge’s house, one has some external tag for the feeling that now the poet is speaking for himself. This places on him only a small increment of responsibility to the facts, but fiction and fictionalized autobiography are not quite the same, nor do they seem to be. Smith understands this, and when he tilts toward extravagance in this last section, his management of tone is sufficient to the task of keeping one from wondering whether some image or other is based on what really happened.

Several pressures emerge to exert force on the speaker of these poems; one is the sense of being alien, a Southern accent among strangers who notice such things; another is the weight of the past as it manifests itself in this turn-of-the-century house; a third is the hope that somewhere there is a place where both the speaker and his children can say “home” and mean the same thing.

“Toy Trains in the Landlord’s House” and “In the House of the Judge” are the central poems in this section. They reveal, in sharp yet mysterious detail, an old house’s ability to make felt the presences of its former occupants. In the first poem, during an excursion to the cellar to contend with the quirks of old wiring, the speaker finds a set of model trains; in the second, he walks quietly through the house at night, the suspicion unshakable that he is in the presence of the Judge’s ghost. Both poems give rise to fine meditations on the Judge’s character and on the speaker’s own need to remember that he is a man alive, wishing he could do more than he can, hoping for the strength and skill to do what is within his capabilities.

The quieter poems in this section suggest that there are moments—jogging, hiking with children, mourning a friend—when living near the limit of capability seems more inevitable than difficult. Making such a theme memorable in quiet poems is not the least of this books’s many strengths.

Dave Smith is one of the best younger poets in America, and this book is his best so far.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 48

Hudson Review. XXXVI, Autumn, 1983, p. 589.

Library Journal. CVII, December 15, 1982, p. 2342.

New England Review. VI, Winter, 1983, p. 348.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, February 13, 1983, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, December 17, 1982, p. 73.

The Sewanee Review. XCI, July, 1983, p. 483.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LIX, Autumn, 1983, p. 135.

Western Humanities Review. XXXVII, Autumn, 1983, p. 251.

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