The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

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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 here are those whom mainstream society has left behind.

The second part reveals that the poet’s wife and father had been from Pennsylvania, where there is now an abandoned house, presumably because of the father-in-law’s death. The speaker makes here one of the prime assertions of the poem: “How unreal/ death makes anything/ we know.” This is antithetical to what is usually said of death, that it makes everything real or that it brings people back to reality. This point is further accented and made concrete when he notices that his wife’s foot is on a cardboard box which “she put him in, the urn/ as unremarkable as garbage.” Presumably, the cremated corpse does not provide reality of death for either the wife, the reader, or the speaker.

The middle section provides flashbacks to an episode in which the couple had made love while decorating the Christmas tree and while the wife’s father was dying. It also refers to the funeral, at which the priest had indicated that the father-in-law, an alcoholic, had loved himself. The priest is suggesting that the dead has acted selfishly; then, the daughter and her husband reenact this same selfishness in their lovemaking.

A classical allusion to the River Styx occurs in the fourth section when the train crosses a river on its further descent into hell. Here the speaker sees things such as “a shack/ cluttered with life’s junk” and an old man—something of a ghost of the father-in-law—gives him “his horny middle finger.” Clearly, the point is that the father-in-law will haunt and control and work evil from death.

The concluding section continues with references to this old man “giving me the finger” as the speaker later tells of the event to his wife in a discussion about love. He is unable to make her understand the significance of the event, probably because he does not reveal that, in his mind, there is an explicit connection between the old man and her father.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

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.