The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems
I once asked two friends from the South what they associated most with Southern writing: one said “rural life” and the other said “oratory.” The first continued, “Even if the piece takes place in a town, the people aren’t generationally far removed from the country”; and the other added, “Hymns and sermons are always the backdrop.” To those two ingredients can be added the Civil War and the question of race. All of these can be found in the poetry of Dave Smith, a poet born in Virginia, whose new collection, The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems 1970–2000, offers a summary—severely truncated—of his lifework in poetry. Smith, now fifty-seven, has so far published seventeen books of verse (he has also written two novels, and a collection of essays on poetry, called Local Assays). The Wick of Memory contains 119 poems; they will do, for the time being, as a source by which a Northerner, long attached to Smith’s poetry, can perhaps explain its success in conveying to her a life so different from her own.
Smith defines himself by region and by history: “It’s clear,” he said to an interviewer five years ago, “that in my deepest sense of self I am a regionalist”:
When I’m not near an ocean, I don’t feel complete. I have what I would call a historical sense…. In the state of Virginia every rock, tree, river, creek, every physical manifestation is possessed of some kind of historical spirit…. I have written almost consistently of the Virginia landscape I lived in probably up to the age of thirty, off and on…. I once had a professor who said, “When are you going to stop writing about these swamp things?” Swamps didn’t particularly interest this man from Illinois, but you know, that’s what was given to me to write about. Swamps and the character of people made by that place….
Smith’s early volumes showed me that Virginia tideland, so foreign to me. They evoked a masculinity created in a rough forge; they articulated the silent bonds among the Chesapeake watermen Smith knew as a boy, and revealed the segregated life—blacks there, whites here—of his youth. In later books, Smith described marriage and fatherhood, chronic illness (diabetes), moves to other landscapes (notably Utah and Wyoming), and, more than anything else, a stubborn and unsatisfied quest for something other than what (in speaking of James Dickey) he called, for lack of a better word, “positivism.”
After graduating from the University of Virginia, teaching in a high school, and spending time in the air force, Smith had written a Master’s thesis (at Southern Illinois University) on the poetry of James Dickey, who was then having his strongest impact on Southern poetry. In spite of his admiration for Dickey’s writing, Smith rebelled against Dickey’s sense of life. Years later, in distinguishing Dickey from Robert Penn Warren, Smith explained his recoil …