The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Dave Smith’s “Southern Crescent” is composed of five sections varying in length from twenty-nine to forty lines each; additionally, a six-line epigraph introduces the poem and appears before the numbered sections start. The poem is an amalgamation of elegiac, narrative, and lyrical poetry. The epigraph is in fact a quotation from a railroad brochure dated 1891 and is an advertisement for the Crescent, a train whose route takes it from Washington, D.C., across the Potomac River and into the mountains of Virginia and other places to the south.

The poet-persona and his wife are traveling on this train in the wake of what appears to be the recent death of his father-in-law. The poem records descriptions of what the couple see from the train window and of their dialogue and thoughts. In so doing, it manifests a progress of their acceptance of the man’s death, which has evidently occurred because of his uncontrolled alcoholism. It is the Christmas season, a matter which further enhances the setting.

In the first section the poet sets forth that he and his wife are on a passenger train leaving Washington and headed south. He gives more than one dozen images to paint the countryside (that is, the universe of the poem) as a dismal, empty, hopeless and endless place, one populated by people who reflect their environs. He speaks, for example, of “slimy mattresses, asylums of fires,/ disemboweled dolls, beercans” and claims that those who are...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem displays an amalgamation of several poetic forms. Ostensibly and primarily, it is lyrical in the sense that it works to create a singular impression and emotion; specifically, the subject is death. It also is something of an elegy in the sense that it is a tribute written to commemorate and meditate about the dead. Moreover, it contains characteristics of a formal ode since the various sections could be viewed as stanzas performing the functions of the chorus, strophe, antistrophe, and epode. Finally, it almost succeeds as a narrative poem because it is organized around the events of the poet and his wife as they travel.

The central metaphor of the poem derives from its title. The Southern Crescent is a train that becomes a vehicle carrying the poet and his wife into their descent into “hell” as they bury his wife’s father. The terrain the train travels through is the ash heap of modern society, replete with “fields once/ green now the vomit/ of rust, wormy dog-bodies,/ spraycanned annunciations/ of glory in garbage that won’t quit.” As they cross the river, presumably the Potomac, they are greeted by a creature from hell who is somehow a cross between the devil and the dead father-in-law. His gesture signifies their continued damnation.

As in much modern poetry, the poet relies primarily on images to create and sustain his mood as well as to document his intended meaning. All the stanzas within the five major sections are rich in imagery. These images are interspliced with flashbacks, thoughts, conversation, the present action of the narrative, and authorial intrusions. Without exception, all the images are bleak, dismal, and hellish. They come mainly from that which is visible to the poet as he looks out the window of the train to study the landscape that is hell. In the opening lines of the poem—“The Crescent, silver as tinsel in vacant lots,/ pistons through dawn-glow/ and corrugated roofs ripped/ from rowhouses by the bums”—the poet makes use of everything visible to him from the train window, including not only physical objects such as houses but also the people themselves.