A Lover’s Quarrel with the World

Daniela Sero Smith
Charlie Smith, Key West, Florida, spring 2010

Charlie Smith’s Jump Soul comprises excerpts from seven previous volumes ranging from 1987 to 2009 (Red Roads, Indistinguishable from the Darkness, The Palms, Before and After, Heroin and Other Poems, Women of America, Word Comix) and a remarkable new collection, forty-six poems entitled Godzilla Street, his strongest work yet.

His poetry is in some ways typically modern and American: awash in idiomatic cross talk and leaps in register, given to all-encompassing lists. It can sometimes seem as if Smith is “on a long run/of quirky asides,” but the poetry grows distinctive for how it records the “give-and-take of the fracas,” the conflicting demands of inhabiting the shared life, particularly life in the city. He has a strong understanding of how to compress and evince, a great ear, and a terrific sense of where the desolate and the absurd overlap.

His tone is by turns amused, bitter, angry, both self-pitying and tough-talking. Like all hard-bitten romantics, he’s given to epiphanies, even if a learned sense of irony often makes him hold them at arm’s length. In “The Paris of Stories,” he describes an “apparent elaboration—the sunset, we mean,” as “brilliant, fucking sublime, the desperation turning to quality yellow/on our faces, the way//earth time includes these confusing generous passages,/gets to us.” Like Frost, Smith has a lover’s quarrel with the world. Even as he’s experiencing something beautiful, he’s questioning it (“apparent,” “confusing”) and finding language inadequate to the moment (“fucking sublime”).

The search for consolation and transcendence in Smith is always a little manic and frazzled and suspicious. If he’s a love poet, it’s love that ends in divorce and recrimination; his speakers are self-accusing, jaggy, recalcitrant. (There’s also an occasional not-so- subtle self-aggrandizing: “I was supposed to fly down to see my brother,/but I got sidetracked by some girls/and was two days late.” Some?) He’s a novelist as well as a poet, but the poems don’t feel like a novelist’s poems. Their primary concern is not with narrative but with detailing an instant of consciousness. Often they start with ellipsis, as if the reader had turned the dial of his attention and tuned in to a voice already mid-sentence. The work’s directness is persuasive and Smith offers up truths as they occur to him, no matter how distasteful or pessimistic.

Smith was born in 1947 in Georgia, attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Duke University, and studied creative writing at Iowa. He lives now in New York City and Florida. Red Roads, his first collection, came out in 1987, when he was already forty, and many of the early poems have something post hoc about them, the songs of a man who’s come through. He’s a survivor, surprised to be one, always having escaped a situation, an addiction, a relationship.

“Honesty” (from Heroin and Other Poems)—which contains walk-ons by Poe, Anna…

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