The Roundhouse Voices
The main subject of Dave Smith’s The Roundhouse Voices: Selected and New Poems is the past, especially as he experienced it. He also focuses on women and ruminates about the nature of poetry.
Smith localizes in the past what he knows about decay. In “Near the Docks,” he remembers a shed that burned down. He used to go there to smoke, and it is as if light itself in the form of fire causes and illuminates destruction for him, and the sea which gives life is also life’s graveyard. Smith returns to the Southern town and train station he knew as a boy and finds them and their rural setting fallen apart, and this both repels and lures him (“How to Get to Green Springs,” “Cumberland Station”). In “Goshawk, Antelope,” an event full of power and death in the present reminds him of the past, which makes him realize that the past is dead and therefore different in his memory than when it was the present. Indeed, life moves forward and as such betrays what went into it (“Remembering Harpers Ferry”). The news of his father’s death was full of meaning for him when it came but seems meaningless (dead in meaning) long afterward (“No Return Address”). Death itself is bad enough, but the past in which it happened makes it worse, for that past is itself dead. Thus the past offers little by way of understanding what happened in it (“De Soto”) and repeatedly presents emblems of the failure appropriate to it, such as the lonely judge in “In the House of the Judge,” whose job made him see the horrors of human life, and the boy in “Ear Ache,” for whose illness no one could find a cure.
Sinister as the past may be for Smith, he also sees lessons of hope and endurance in it because love makes him stubborn. In “Sailing the Back River,” he may see decomposition in his past, but that past—which he loves—makes him feel saved. At the same time that the past holds him in its grip and seems useless, it feeds him; in “Smithfield Ham,” it causes a thirst which Smith equates with hope. “Kitchen Windows,” with its annually renewed celebration from the past (Thanksgiving), moves him to accept the bad times which the past embodies and to see hope, not only death, as an essential part of life’s meaning. What his dead father told him in the past when he wanted to run away he finds he can apply now that he is grown up. The event which brought about the advice is painful—a boy going out to test himself against the world—but the advice is still good: Keep in touch, be careful, and take time with decisions (“Runaway”). If the past, in short, is the history of hardship and decay, it also shows the way to live life and makes it possible, as in “Chopping Wood,” to see that dead things (wood) nourish life (fire).
To understand how Smith relates women to his past, it helps to see what features about them he emphasizes in the present. “The Shark in the Rafters” shows violence and death associated with women. Perhaps to take revenge on the shark for eating humans, the women in the poem tear it apart after it is caught. The pregnant woman in “Black Widow” kills the spider but feels in tune with its savagery, neurotically imagining that she is full of its unborn offspring. Even the little girl in “Cleaning a Fish” quickly overcomes her shock at the butchery she is about and accepts it. Moreover, the impression of female passion from which he is cut off is so strong on the narrator of “Field Music” that he becomes a wild beast in his own eyes.
A quality of women that attracts Smith is the hope of which they are capable. The used girl in “The Soft Belly of the World” waits for her seducer to return, hoping thereby to free herself of the memory of what happened to her. Hope is what makes the widow in “Portrait of a Lady” try to withstand age and death by tending her flowers, despite all the weeds she has to pull. Hope raised to the level of enduring attraction in the woman in “James River Storm” is what keeps the narrator committed to his memories and his vision of their importance to him in the present.
Sex and the past often go together in Smith’s poetry, mostly in an unhappy way. The women in “The Pornography Box” are pictures. They are the source of lust in the narrator’s boyhood, and though he found such abstract women wonderful, they also encased him in a feeling of rot. “A Gold of Birds” associates a death-dealing hawk in the present with the first experience of sex. The mud in “Pond” reminds Smith of the sexual love of ancestors, while “Nekkid: Homage to Edgar Allan Poe” takes him back to the time when he was fourteen and his desire for women was full of terror. When he was seventeen, he was humiliated by the laughter of the man who caught him having sex with a girl, and it is this shame linked with sex that he remembers in “The Colors of Our Age: Pink and Black.” In the same vein, a girl causes him to fall when he is ice-skating in his youth; he bleeds, and avers as an adult that everyone has a bloody story to tell about youthful sex (“Skating”). Remembering when he was drafted, the narrator of “Men Drafted” places women at the core of young men’s sense of helplessness, for they wish for what they cannot reach in their condition, as though women have always expected an impossible strength from them. If “Wedding Song” insists that it is the impulsive feeling behind his early marriage that keeps that marriage alive now for the poet, the poem also emphasizes the pain of such a marriage.
Smith goes to the past not only to find out what death and love mean but also to define what poetry means to him. In general, pain is the source and goad of art, as “Ducking: After Maupassant” and “Snow Owl” reveal. The pain of parting from a known place, consigning it thus to the past, makes words the habitation of that place in “Leaving Town.” The pain of paradox occupies “The Roundhouse Voices,” in which the poet recalls his maverick boyhood, with its rules and lessons, and wonders how poetry and rebelliousness can accommodate each other. Smith says, furthermore, that poetry cannot fully capture the wildness of nature or the pain of composition but adds that it is akin to useful, earthy arts such as boat building and that it can reveal something of the elemental in life (“Rooster Smith’s Last Log Canoe”). For Smith, poetry is like an old boat maintained against the specious glamour of the present (“Boats”), and though poetry may repeat the bad news of the past in the present, it is still a message that needs to be delivered, perhaps as a warning meant to preserve life (“Messenger”). Smith continues the boat metaphor in “Elegy in an Abandoned Boatyard,” equating a verse-line to a keel-line and seeing poetry as effective an embodiment of the past as are old boats. Photography is another metaphor that Smith uses for poetry, especially photography’s limits. “The Perspective & Limits of Snapshots” suggests that the subject of poetry is the past, and therefore failure. “The Traveling Photographer: Circa 1880,” again locating art in the past, shows the artist confounded by his subjects in that he is forced to see life as it is, not as he might like it to be. The artist is compelled by this painful restriction not only to pursue his art but also to record the truth of its content.
Two things account for the popularity of Dave Smith’s work in the current mainstream of American poetry: his addiction to his own past (particularly his family experiences in it) and his fascination with rural settings. He is forceful in his treatment and use of both, though not unique. His work broods with a kind of elegant subtlety on its subjects, but this is not enough to set it apart from the homogeneous verse of his contemporaries, which features a by now forced nostalgia for nature. In addition, what real passion there is in Smith’s poetry tends to be weakened by overstatement. Many of his poems start with an unnecessary description of setting and go on simply to repeat his intention and conclusions. Such a strategy tends to drug rather than excite or renew the reader’s attention.
Library Journal. CX, November 1, 1985, p. 100.
The Nation. CCXLI. October 5, 1985, p. 320.
The New York Times Book Review. XCI, January 12, 1986, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, August 9, 1985, p. 72.