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).1 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….2
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 from Dickey’s resignation to the actual:
Dickey is finally, as a thinker, a positivist. Warren is not…. He is a skeptic who yearns to believe…. [Dickey] has given himself, from early on, to a single answer…, that the momentum of the natural world is the true force. You may contradict it, contravene it, resist it, but in the end, it runs over you. Dickey celebrates our part in the natural process. Not religiously speaking, but practically speaking, he accepts ashes to ashes. Warren doesn’t accept it, but he doesn’t not accept it either.
Smith characterizes Warren as “desperate for enlightenment,” a condition which, however ambiguous, is true also of himself. Smith sometimes finds that enlightenment in love, sometimes in joy. Yet Smith’s harsher works are the ones that linger longest in my memory. The 1984 poem “Leafless Trees, Chickahominy Swamp” reveals a fearful allegory of the psyche, as Smith describes blighted Southern swamp pines:
plates show them as they are, the ageless stumps,
time-sanded solitaries, some clumped in squads
we might imagine veterans, except they’re only wood,
and nothing in the world seems more dead than these.
It never blooms or greens….
The rapacious odor of swamps all over the earth bubbles
sometimes to mist, fetid flesh we can’t see but know,
just cells composing, decomposing, a heart’s illusions.
As Smith’s automobile carries him and his family out of the swamp, he gives in to nostalgia for the time when the swamp, or the South, or his soul was not blasted:
Surely all was green once, fragile
as a truce, words braiding sun and water, as on a lake
where families sang. What else would we hope for, do
in the dead miles nothing explains or changes or relieves?
That closing line embodies what I find to be Smith’s true lyric power: to note “the dead miles nothing explains or changes or relieves.” These dead miles represent not only the personal past of family disintegration (Smith’s father, an engineer, was killed in an auto accident while his son was in high school; Smith’s mother silently remarried and moved to Florida while he was away at college) but also the collective past of the South, marred by wrong choices (slavery, secession). Nothing explains such things, nothing changes them, and—to speak truthfully—nothing relieves them. Their recalcitrance compels Smith’s writing, which returns, sometimes helplessly, sometimes deliberately, to moments of hopelessness. It is true that Smith once recalled to an interviewer the satisfactions life has given him—nature, pleasure, his family:
I think the world is good, in spite of the fact that it’s hideous in many ways…. I don’t know who to be grateful to, but that seems to me to be what part of the act of writing a poem is all about…testimony of witness to the goodness of existence.3
As in this quotation, so in the poems: Smith shores nostalgia and gratitude for present satisfactions against his ruins; but the ruins reassert their dominance, making Smith’s counterstatements of redress sometimes seem merely the bluster or bravado of one who carries within a deep well of sadness.
The backflow summoned to right past wrongs and to resist depression succeeds best in Smith when it is not insisted on too strongly. It works well in a poem reflecting on the decline of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, in which Smith first exposes a hopeless waste: the water’s “brown goes nowhere, neither does it remain, and elms/bend over its heavy back like patient fans, dreamlessly.” The death of commerce has made the lives of those who once depended on the canal take on aimlessness:
This is the death of hope’s commerce, the death of cities
Blank as winter light, the death of people who are gone
Erratic and passive as summer’s glittering water-skimmers.
Yet the desolate landscape is looked on differently by a couple who “saw the heart of the water break open only minutes ago,/and the rainbow trout walked its tail as if the evening/was… an offering.” True enough; and the poem ends in the middle distance, as, against the melancholy of the beginning, Smith returns to the trout, which seem
Like a lure drawn carefully, deviously in the blue ache
Of air that thickens still streets between brown walls.
Such descriptive poems are not entirely characteristic of Smith’s work, which often includes a strong narrative element. “It’s a false distinction to argue that there are narrative poets and there are lyric poets,” Smith insists; but he cannot resist adding, “But I do require a tale, as Warren says at the end of Audubon.” In some ways, Smith’s tales have learned from Frost’s; one could read Smith’s passionate narrative “Pillage” (1990) as a counter-poem to Frost’s famous “Directive.” In “Directive,” Frost leads the reader back to a deserted landscape of abandoned cellar-holes, back to “the children’s playhouse,” where the forgotten toys of the past are still to be found, among them a tin cup, of which Frost says, without irony, “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”
Frost’s foraging in the past for some redemptive link to the present is an understandable and classic modernist quest, visible in the Eliot of “East Coker” and in the Stevens of “The Bed of Old John Zeller”; but Smith is more dubious than they of its propriety and even of its possibility. In “Pillage” he and a companion go into an abandoned Southern barn, wonderfully described, haunted by the men who built it and used it: “Here are roofholders they raised, gray beams/axed from an infinite country’s brood, and ribs,/struts, planks, overlapped, darkened by time.” Startled by the sudden swoop of disturbed barn swallows, the partners in intrusion cry out, but nobody answers, not even (Smith says with wistful irony) the Prince Albert tobacco cans left on the sills. What have we come to steal, the poet asks of himself and his companion as they back out of the barn, passing by the foundation stones “handlaid like a language we once understood”:
Once out we are chilled in the sun, the smell
of ourselves oddly imprecise yet powerful
as a memory of passion when we stand alone
remembering how we crept in, how we burst out,
our hands filled with cowbells, straps, tools,
relics for mantels in our bright, modern houses.
Agreeing to return some Sunday, already we
make up tales to explain why we never go back.
In truth, the modern house has no authentic place for the vanished forefathers’ “cowbells, straps, tools.” Yet the pull of the past, of that “language we once understood,” draws Smith with such power that he has to condemn as “pillage” his yielding to it. To draw the process of his entering the barn, submitting to its atmosphere, coveting its relics, being startled by the resident swallows (but not too soon to claim the “pillage”), leaving the old “language,” being ashamed of the intrusion—all this, Smith would insist, demands a narrative (but dense and implicit, as befits a poem) rather than a mere distilled lyric “moment.”
Smith also distrusts the “pure poem” that has sieved out too much of the “rawness” of life. He claims as his own a different poetic kind, saying:
In the middle eighties, [the poet] Stan Plumly wrote about something he called the “prose lyric.”… It was the notion that the prosaic imperfections of the world ought to be somehow got into lyric poetry. The beauty of lyric language could be employed with the rawness and ugliness of human experience.
One can see why this formulation appealed to Smith: after all, he had, as early as 1977, made the same point in “The Perspective and Limits of Snapshots,” a poem torn between the appeal of the aesthetic and the actuality of violence. In 1905, he tells us, a photographer by the name of Aubrey Bodine had photographed (in a location on the James River close to Smith’s grandfather’s house) “Two-man oyster scows [that] lie shoulder to shoulder,/as if you walk them, one land to another.” The picture of the hulls of the overturned boats was dear enough to Smith that he used it as a jacket photo for Night Pleasures (his 1992 Selected Poems). And yet the silent beauty of the quiet rows of boats—in the controlled perspective of the photograph absent of people—suppresses (as Smith’s poem argues) the lives of the men who manned the boats; and that is the “limit” of the lyric art of the aestheticized surface:
Bodine fails to show is [a] dog turning to lope
uphill under that screen of poplars, behind fat
azaleas that hide the county jail and drunks
starting to smell water’s way out. Thumping
his noisy wife out a window, an oysterman cries
she cut him more than twice, madly mourning
their boy drowned twenty years.
In this early ars poetica, Smith is making explicit a critique of American high culture: the poplars and azaleas planted to conceal the county jail and the drunks and wife-assaulters inside it perform the same act as Bodine’s beautiful but inanimate photograph. In this way, “pure” poetry may be thought to hide the grossness, violence, and tragedy of the human. This seems to me an inadequate theory of art, but it is one adopted, at least in their youth, by many writers who feel impelled toward direct representation of the cultural facts that assault their nascent moral sense.
Smith has sometimes had difficulty finding a style that can embrace both his acute impressions of the beautiful and his human awareness of violence. He has tried separating the poem into two antithetical parts—one for Bodine, one for the murderous oysterman. He has also tried jump-cuts, alternating a present domestic harmony with past ugliness, as he does in a remarkable poem of remembered racial conflict during his adolescence in Virginia, “The Colors of Our Age: Pink and Black.” Smith’s children, looking through his old photograph album, have come across a picture published years before in Life magazine: the photographer has caught a white man, wearing a Klan ring, in the act of raising a hammer against a black teenager:
The black teenager, no name given,
glares at the lens in distraction.
Half-crouched, he shows no teeth,
is shirtless, finely muscled,
his arms extended like wings.
White sneakers with red stars
make him pigeon-toed, alert.
His fingers spread at his thighs
like Wilt Chamberlain trying
to know what moves and not look.
It is almost in vain that against the suspended terror of the hammer, Smith offers a sight of the hummingbirds outside his house, inset memories of his first romance, or his children’s amusement at the ridiculous pink and black clothes of their father’s adolescence. The terror returns to claim the end of the poem, as Smith reveals his own presence at the event photographed:
There I am, nearest the stranger
whose hammer moves quicker
than the Lord’s own hand. I am
only seventeen. I don’t smoke.
That’s my friend Celia, kissing me.
We don’t know what we’re doing.
We’re wearing pink and black.
She’s dead now, I think.
Smith’s narrative poems, such as “The Colors of Our Age: Pink and Black,” require quotation in full to display their (often stunning) cumulative effect. In reclaiming the grittiness of ordinary life for lyric, Smith joins his poetic effort to that of other contemporary American poets attempting the same retrieval—Ginsberg and Ammons most of all.
In Fate’s Kite (1996), Smith reined in his narrative expansiveness very sharply, experimenting with sonnet-like thirteen-line poems, many of them brief, unhappy, perplexed snapshots that owe something to Lowell’s practice in the 1968–1969 Notebook. Smith’s dogged push for meaning and enlightenment has, he feels, too often failed: he is living the stalled existence of the middle-aged, when one has, without expectation of change, one’s family, one’s job, one’s habits, one’s diseases, one’s life.
Here is Smith out jogging by Lake Pontchartrain, not really wanting to run, with his mind on random thoughts—the paper says that the lake fish are turning up misshapen—and random memories (how, as a child, he wanted his mother to fix a damaged turtle, and asked her what makes things bleed). The poem, called “Nature Moment,” achieves at the end an utter bleakness:
Dusk, when he jogs, he asks himself, Is this it?
Lake flat as rolled sheet steel, God’s orange and purple
sky like a Cadillac never garaged, ruining
fumes still hung while the music maker rolls on.
Fish boil up. The paper says they’re distorted,
too many fins, too few. He thinks Evolution?
Macadam hurts his feet, but doc warns the heart
needs rotation like his tires. That smashed turtle
he asked his mom, years back, how to fix—what made bleeding?
She returns, then, like light in ligustrum’s thick scent.
What was her smell? Kids rocket past, pealing laughs,
jittery last-minute finch calls from hairy darks.
Why make this turn? He knows bush, house, but no reason.
The closing “no reason” is desire’s epitaph. And the lassitude of middle age is accompanied in Fate’s Kite by harsh satire of the South—a region no longer, for Smith, a receptacle chiefly for elegiac sorrow or nostalgia. In “The Penumbral Legacy of Huey P. Long,” the satire appears in colloquial form: the opening line is “There’s an election here every week,” and the last quatrain reads:
We’ve voted ourselves big dicks, fast cars, no dying.
We’ve dropped your blossom-buried back fence like pants.
We’ve thrown your people out. We’ll tax your sins, we’ll sue.
We’ve got the votes to change things the southern way.
“Real” as this is, it is less real, poetically speaking, than “Blowfish and Mudtoad,” a poem that includes both a spasm of self-disgust and a satire on the hysteria of small-town preachers. The poet, fishing, wants to catch a “real” fish—“big Blue, Striper, Thor-like Drum”—but too often reels in instead the horror-fish of the title, wonderfully described:
Moss-covered as bottom rock, wearing the brown
scum of salt water settlers, current-fluttered
flags of weed, eyes like glass pitted by age,
each reads steadily the downdrifted offerings
its tongue ticks for: crawlers, wings, limbs, all
the great current gathers to sweep away at last.
Our line sinkered into that steep wants a sleek
one to claim us—big Blue, Striper, Thor-like Drum.
Not these nibbling small-town preachers, Mudtoad’s
black ambush, or Blowfish, resurrection and rage.
More and more, in Fate’s Kite, the images rising as if unbidden summon up “the great current” that will sweep everything away. The anger roused by the advent of the latter phase of life comes masked in the “black ambush” of depression, or, when freed, leaps out in “resurrection and rage”: neither response is of any satisfaction to the poet’s simple wish to feel better, to be better, to receive more from the ocean’s abundance. Fate’s Kite—though it has some sweet-tempered poems—is mostly the outraged cry of one whose idealistic hopes have gone bankrupt, one who has had to turn and face the grayness of the Chickahominy swamp with no easy way to drive out.
The elegant aesthetic perspective of the Bodine photograph cannot survive the poet’s subjection to anomie and anger, seen in a memorable poem about fiddler crabs on the beach. They become Smith’s brutal allegory of all evolutionary existence, including our own. “Fiddlers” begins as the mud-bank, pushed by the tide, makes the crabs swarm up onto the beach as if they were guests fleeing a hotel fire; and the ceaseless and ruthless movements of the crabs, issuing from “the earth’s brain” and blindly persisted in, strike the poet as comparable to his own exertions and exhaustions:
Black mudbank pushes them out like hotel fire.
Some at water’s edge seem to wait for transport.
Others sweat, pale, scattered on the shining beach.
All keep closed the mighty arms of God’s damage,
waving at shadows and movements made by the sun.
Desire, the dragging arm, sifts, picks, tastes, untastes
endlessly the civic occasions the tide brings in.
Surely floods, cold fronts, embolisms of dreams
drive them in where the earth’s brain hums. They
clasp, breed. They glare upward in rooms where the moon
slips its questions. Daylong they spout, fume, command.
Biblical as kinsmen with a son they must kill.
Nouns, verbs couple like years. Water comes, listens.
It is surprising to find Freud in Smith’s work, although one can hardly doubt a Freudian overtone here, in the disquieting combination of desire and patriarchal murderousness. “Fiddlers” owes something to Hopkins and to Lowell, buts finally does not sound very much like either. “Sifts, picks, tastes, untastes” is reminiscent of Hopkins: “Biblical as kinsmen with a son they must kill” embodies a Lowellian Calvinism. But neither Hopkins nor Lowell would have written the sonnet as it stands, with its entirely Smith-like oscillation among intense seaside observation, internal kinetic convulsions, and a vicious exertion of the superego, by which the crabs are said to “spout, fume, command.” The water in the last line—almost indifferent, but compelled to listen—recalls Dickinson on the famous “slant of light”:
When it comes, the Landscape—listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
Perhaps the only grim satisfaction that the poet coupling nouns and verbs can take in “Fiddlers” is that “Water comes, listens.”
The newest poems in The Wick of Memory are happier; the poet and his wife decide, after a separation, to remarry, and jubilation and relief attend that decision: “It was the Sunday we said we’d remarry. The sun,/I remember, boiled down that cobbled street like a fuse.” The erotic life burns in remembrance, too, in the phrase from which the volume takes its title: “The wick/of memory burns me to aureoles, nipples/skin, cream linen, your skirt hung on a dogwood.” Nonetheless, the darkness is not to be altogether put by: there is a long, interesting poem called “Floaters”—the only one where diabetes makes an extended appearance—in which Smith, losing sight in one eye because of coagulations of vitreous humor (“floaters”), sees doctors, has laser treatment, and recalls a blind vagrant of his college days in Charlottesville in whom he sees a parable of his own future. At the end, the language of the poem opens up, loses its Hopkinsian and Anglo-Saxon thickness, and turns almost to a lullaby, when the husband, fearing blindness, says in a desperate playfulness,
I want you to come back, let me show you places life happens,
new azaleas blooming, cardinals taking five may strike up again….
We won’t see thuggish dark cruising. I’ll pretend to be young again.
If there’s a good movie we can take it in, you’ll say what happens….
Some I’ll already know by measured words, the music of things.
You can read, put me to bed, if you like climb in with me. I’m hoping
I’ll feel your breasts against my ribs. I’ll sing for gold on your head.
I’ll tell you about floaters, why I’m afraid, what I can almost see.
“We won’t see thuggish dark cruising,” says the poet, whistling in the dark. I believe Smith’s fending off of the “thuggish dark” is what has allowed the new poems to become less congested, less fated, less intent on wreck. Even in the elegies—including a sturdily beautiful one for Smith’s grandfather, called “On the Job”—there is not the heaviness of Fate’s Kite; and the self-loathing of “Blowfish and Mudtoad” has dissipated. There are youthful memories again, but they are less corrosive ones. Smith recalls his inland relatives, in a family ritual, setting him on, as a boy, to catch a pig (he won’t be caught in the family destiny, and after catching the pig, turns the tables by letting it go); he describes his first waltz with a girl to the music of the Platters; he summons up the voice of “Mighty Joe Turner” inflaming his adolescence. And there are several “pure” lyrics with nothing to prove—one of them a hymn to Poquoson, Virginia, the site of so many of Smith’s early poems about the watermen. He is no longer in the company of his boyhood friend, a waterman’s son; nor can he regain that sequestered society of the watermen, his surrogate fathers, whom he has so often elegized. Now he is alone on the water, and he sings, in “Night Pleasures,” the song of the man who has made a part of the world a part of himself:
Here my little boat takes the night
One far neon light tosses, a city
people walk alone, its rhythmic
landscape cut from marshes
On black water it is all mine, first
beginnings, endings, love’s
So when I move, it moves under
me, and knows me.
If one thing to be said for suffering is that it grinds us down into a less defensive consciousness, then Smith’s physical and mental suffering, almost intolerable in Fate’s Kite, has helped, along with age, to wear down the defiant and unconvincing overreaching in language to which some of Smith’s earlier writing tended, and has enabled a more equilibrated, and therefore more accurate, poetic.
How odd it is, I say to myself, that such an indoor and sedentary and bookish person as I can have been made to sympathize, through the thirty years of Smith’s poetry, with the world of a boy catching a pig on a farm, an adolescent wearing pink and black, yearning after love and baffled by girls, envious of the watermen and knowledgeable about the sea; odd that I have been brought to understand the life of a husband, a father, a grandson, a mourner of abandoned barns and deserted boatyards. If one has never seen Smith’s Chesapeake Bay territory, one feels like Dickinson:
I never saw a Moor,
I never saw the Sea—
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be—
The transfusion of experience accomplished by a poem has been disparaged, in recent years, as an illusion; but can those who think it an illusion ever have felt it? Wordsworth came closer to what one encounters reading Dave Smith when he observed that once a work of art is created, it takes its unforced place as one of the elements of nature, to be encountered and prized by the passerby as much as any river, meadow, or mountain.
March 8, 2001
A full account of Smith’s published work, and a summary of his unpublished writing, can be found in Dave Smith: A Literary Archive by Robert J. DeMott (Ohio University Libraries, 2000). Smith’s papers are held in the Alden Library of Ohio University, where he took his Ph.D. (with a creative thesis) in 1976. Smith is now the Boyd Professor in the English department at Louisiana State University, and co-editor of The Southern Review. ↩
Interview with Dave Smith conducted by Ernest Suarez in Southbound: Interviews with Southern Poets (University of Missouri Press, 1999), pp. 31–32. An earlier (1977) interview with Smith can be found in The Giver of Morning: On the Poetry of Dave Smith, edited by Bruce Weigl (Thunder City Press, 1982), pp. 53–60. ↩
Weigl, The Giver of Morning, p. 59. ↩