A river. And if not the river nearby, then a dream
of a river. Nothing happens that doesn’t happen
along a river, however humble the water may be.
Take Rowan Creek, the trickle struggling to lug
its mirroring across Poynette, wherein, suspended,
so gentle and shallow, I learned to walk, bobbing
at my father’s knees. Later, whenever we tried
to meander on our inner tubes, we’d get lodged
on the bottom. Seth, remember, no matter how we’d
kick and shove off, we’d just get lodged again?
At most an afternoon would carry us a hundred feet
toward the willows. We’d piss ourselves on purpose
just to feel the spirits of our warmth haloing out.
And once, two bald men on the footbridge, bowing
in the sky, stared down at us without a word.
Moving from 1960s Long Island, to 1980s Houston, to today's Brooklyn, the poems range in subject from the pages of the Talmud to a squirrel trapped in a kitchen. One tells the story of young lovers "warmed by the rays / Their pelvic bones sent over the horizon of their belts," while another describes the Bronx Zoo in winter, where the giraffes pad about "like nurses walking quietly / outside a sick room." Another poem defines the speaker via a "packing slip" of her parts--"brown eyes, brown hair, from hirsute tribes in Poland and Russia." The title poem, in which the speaker and friends stumble through a series of flawed memories about each other, unearths the human vulnerabilities that shape so much of the collection.
From The Two Yvonnes:
WHEN MY DAUGHTER GOT SICK
Her cries impersonated all the world;
The fountain's bubbling speech was just a trick
But still I turned and looked, as she implored,
Or leaned toward muffled noises through the bricks:
Just radio, whose waves might be her wav-
ering, whose pitch might be her quavering,
I turned toward, where, the sirens might be "Save
Me," "Help me," "Mommy, Mommy"--everything
She, too, had said, since sloughing off the world.
She took to bed, and now her voice stays fused
To air like outlines of a bygone girl;
The streets, the lake, the room--just places bruised
Without her form, the way your sheets still hold
Rough echoes of the risen sleeper, cold.
Confronting subjects such as moral depravity, nature's indifference, aging, illness, death, the tenacity of spirit, and the possibility of joy, the poems in this collection are accessible and controlled, musical and meditative, imagistic and richly figurative. They are informed by history, literature, and a deep interest in the natural world, touching on a wide range of subjects, from the Civil War and whale ships, to animals and insects. Two poems present biblical narratives, the story of Lot's wife and an imagining of Noah in his old age. Other poems nod to favorite authors: one poem is in the voice of the character Babo, from Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, while another is a kind of prequel to Emily Dickinson's "She rose to His Requirement."
As inventive as they are observant, these memorable lyrics strive for revelation and provide their own revelations.
This collection also reflects on a long poetic apprenticeship. Smith's father is a poet himself, and Almanac is in part a meditation about the responsibility of the poet, especially the young poet, when it falls to him to speak for what is vanishing. To quote another Illinois poet, Thomas James, Smith has attempted in this book to write poems "clear as the glass of wine / on [his] father's table every Christmas Eve." By turns exhilarating and disquieting, this is a remarkable debut from a distinctive new voice in American poetry.
THE MUMMY IN THE FREEPORT ART MUSEUM
Amongst the masterpieces of the small-town
Picassos and Van Goghs and photographs
of the rural poor and busts of dead Greeks
or the molds of busts donated by the Art
Institute of Chicago to this dying
town's little museum, there was a mummy,
a real mummy, laid out in a dim-lit
room by himself. I used to go
to the museum just to visit him, a pharaoh
who, expecting an afterlife
of beautiful virgins and infinite food
and all the riches and jewels
he'd enjoyed in earthly life,
must have wondered how the hell
he'd ended up in Freeport, Illinois.
And I used to go alone into that room
and stand beside his sarcophagus and say,
"My friend, I've asked myself the same thing."