The Roundhouse Voices

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

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...

(The entire section is 1462 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

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.