Reviewed by Brendan Galvin
If a reader’s first demand for poetry is that it consist of language other than journalese, then this new and selected volume made up of seventy-three poems taken from eleven previous collections should provide a substantial view of R. T. Smith’s achievement. In Smith’s work there are none of the usual poetry anxieties we turn away from because they are the commonplaces of our narcissistic time. No cute ironies, either, and no coy word games.
As fewer and fewer American poets write out of a sense of place, a natural bed from which fruit might grow, one can go back thirty and more years and see in Smith’s beginnings how feeling is primary, and how it is often grounded in the flora and fauna of his native South.
There is emotion here, as well as rhetorical power and a genuine skill with prosody. Smith has always worked deeply in the natural vein, whether examining southern places and people, including Native Americans, or those of Ireland, where he has spent time and listened attentively to the language. Music, too, as made by folk who are outside officially sanctioned circles, has been one of his affections. In The Night Orchard delivers on the great New Orleans cornet player Buddy Bolden and the Carter Family, and there’s even a villanelle spoken by Doc Watson.
Smith’s prosody is robust, patterned with near-rhyme, alliteration, and iambics. He is partial to demotic lingo, too, as when he has his version of the lupus-afflicted Flannery O’Connor say, “Locally nigh-on famous / for being chaste, medicined bald as a possum / and already starting to limp with a stick, I was / nothing sent from Venus, my head swole up / like a muskmelon in July.”
There is always the urge toward more life and energy, and endings that are often long intense sentences. Consider “Cardinal Directions”:
This crested finch,
red as the last cannas
wilting, is famished. He scavenges
in a dry season for pods,
cold grubs, any scrap to sharpen
his beak or hone his sight,
and also within me the tree
of bones is giving way
to gravity, the tree of nerves
surrendering, memory’s tree
releasing its leaves, though my
eyes are still seeds looking
for fertile soil, and the one bird
heavy in my chest, the cardinal
heart, still harbors ambitions
to forage, sing the litany
beyond language, and fly.
Smith understood early on the mystery of the extended sentence, how its breaks, changes, interruptions, divagations, insertions, twists and turns could take the reader by surprise.
Although earlier in life he occasionally spoke in the voices of Black Elk, nameless scribes, looney hermits and the inhabitants of Indian burial mounds, even the weathercock on a barn roof, his most recent poems have more often crossed the unfenced border between the lyric and the narrative, all the while retaining the lyric’s music. Among his historic figures are John Wilkes Booth and Flannery O’Connor, as well as snake-handlers and preachers who breed fighting cocks—he seems to have discovered that inhabiting the voices of others, a precinct left largely to fiction these days, can open up broad new possibilities of subject matter, and ways of avoiding the “selfie” poem as well. Rumors and folklore often accompany his authentic historical details, and his narrators are always accomplished talkers. New poems from In The Night Orchard include “Mary Lincoln Triptych,” spoken by his widow after the president’s assassination. The evidence of research is here, albeit lightly presented, as well as the details that bring a narrative alive. Apropos of seances she says:
If the dead have answers, why not ask?
And if our rites are merely drama, with their hush
and curtains, shadow play and suspension
of disbelief…why, we make Tragedy
reverse—Lear howling for his precious dove,
Hecuba mourning her many sons as she transforms
to a hound—
had they faith, they would know eternal peace
and pursue its mysteries. It is not sickness. At least
Sally Orde and Myra Bradwell stand by me and see
in this seeking some dignity,
which is not easy when the body heaves with sobs,
and even in the face of public ridicule
the essence yearns for release.
This is far from “the greedy star-glint of a diamondback’s eye,” and the way a water moccasin’s “black spade head / yawned a coffin’s satin, thrust fangs in dirt, shot the tongue’s / impotent lightning,” but it demonstrates Smith’s linguistic range.
In The Night Orchard might have been twice as long without any loss of force. Smith is that good.
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