Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465
“That Moment, Which You Could Love, What of It” is a poem about people’s awareness of the passage of time. Bruce Weigl, in The Giver of Morning: On the Poetry of Dave Smith (1982), emphasizes Smith’s “recognition of the inevitability of time [moving] forward.” Such an awareness may well be the mental function which most distinguishes us from all other species. The isolation of the enigmatic “you” in a room recalling meaningful and highly personal events is thus emblematic of all humanity, or people’s isolating capacity to anticipate, with objective detachment, their own deaths.
Smith addresses this theme throughout the poem, beginning with the dissolution of day into a peculiarly human incarnation of dusk. Memory, by separating now from then, is a reminder of time’s passage. With a highly charged memory at its heart, “That Moment” makes the same separation, but in Smith’s hands, memory is a salve as well as a source of distress. By asking “Who/ would not risk everything/ for this. . . .?” Smith is celebrating both the reader’s capacity to recall and his own ability to render his remembered experience into artistically satisfying lyric poetry. In short, Smith’s life work of writing is for him a sacramental transformation.
Other poets have made the same point, but what distinguishes this poem from many contemporary poems on the same theme is the poem’s allusion to a story in what is traditionally regarded as a sacred text. The metaphorical image of snow as a tongue of flame in a bush evokes the burning bush that appears to Moses in the Book of Exodus. In this way, Smith offers his readers an enriching expansion into levels of meaning that greatly enhance our experience of the poem.
For one thing, the allusion infuses the poem with important metaphysical underpinnings that are entirely in keeping with its theme. Any meaningful meditation on the passage of time puts one in touch with the prospect of death. Even more important, when Smith brings the matter up again with “the fierce blaze of light” that introduces his memory of a sexually ecstatic encounter, he is mixing the sacred with earthly sensation in a crucial way. His message is that human contact, however fleeting, is of paramount redemptive value.
Ultimately, the poem’s response to the seemingly irreverent “What of It” of the title is its solemn insistence that a “moment which you could love” is more valuable than virtually everything. Herein lies the logic of the poem’s concluding lines: “Who/ would not risk everything/ for this, even as darkness rushes/ over the fish, the salt, the snow?” The question is so broad, so globally encompassing, as to suggest a breathlessness, as though Smith, like Moses, were struck dumb by the power of his vision.