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Review of The Collected Poems of Jared Smith

 

This month I decided to run a review of a poetry collection by my friend poet Jared Smith, written by Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene reviewer Ralph Pennel. Smith has had a distinguished career in poetry and in the federal government. He started out as a hardscrabble poet in Greenwich Village in the 1970's and later he became one of the important "suits" in the rarefied air of the upper chambers of the federal government. But poetry has always been his first loveand you never forget that first steamy kissso he is back in its warm embrace.

Review of The Collected Poems of Jared Smith  ISBN-13: 9781935520702 Publisher: The New York Quarterly Foundation

Review by Ralph Pennel

 

The Collected Poems of Jared Smith settles deep in the heart of the reader and settles the reader deep in the heart of the heartland. The work in this collection is both intensely personal and of a common language that, at times, expands as wide as any sweeping plain or open field in tenor and voice, and, at other times is equally as singular in breadth. The Collected Poems spans nine books and forty years of Smith’s career as a writer and encapsulates the vastness of his ethic and vision. The works housed in this collection capture not only the visage of Smith’s view of the world around him through careful and thoughtful observations of the land and the people of the land, but they capture the visage of Smith himself, as well.

From the first book (Song of the Blood: An Epic) to the last (Grassroots), and including the “uncovered poems,” Jared Smith’s voice is resonant. Timeless. Unwavering. Each poem is a clear pronouncement, an ideation, and resolute. From word one to the very last intimation, Smith’s poetry is definitive. Each of his books, though singular in content, collectively gives rise to a singular voice. That is because Smith’s primary concerns are of our humanity and of how we might live better, more meaningful lives, and, in doing so, how we might leave meaningful legacies of our lives as well, and he does so with uncommon restraint and patience.

These concerns rise up throughout Smith’s life’s work. The poem “Evening in the Heartland,” from, Keeping the Outlaw Alive, his first full-length book of poems and a paradoxical look at that which makes us honest and better for honoring that honesty, blemished or not, captures the aforementioned concern as well as any poem in the entire collection and with the same restraint and patience of his later works:

    Our chances seem so remarkably small by now of finding anything. Yet, we
    carry on. What a remarkable genius man is in his survival, in his ability to
    look with amazement at even the darker rocks that will crush him when he
    falls, and to find mystery and hope in them. (p. 209)

We are each of us always surviving regardless of our positions in life, of where we reside, or of the luxuries we may or may not have at our disposal. It is in the survival that we are forged by circumstance, rendered accessible, common, humane. And, it is exactly this, this constant demarcation, this remodeling of ourselves toward accessibility, that “makes us [simultaneously]/ An opening into the stars / And as distant as a stranger’s hands” (p. 205).

This exploration, this call to truthfully examine our lives despite the consequences, is further evidenced in the book, Walking the Perimeters of the Plate Glass Window Factory. But in this book there is also a sense of resignation, the poems here as rooted to place and identity as the soil itself. In works such as “He Who Says The Name of God Will Perish,” Smith, with the same patience toward recovering ourselves as “Evening in the Heartland,” asks, “What is life / when we cannot reach out and feel our skin against the cold stone of night / and find the warmth we do not find within ourselves” (p. 260)?

Even the poems about other things are really about our humanity, about identity, about affirmation through acceptance. This is most evident in Lake Michigan and Other Poems, a seminal book in the collection, and a book firmly rooted to the heartland, the Midwest, where Smith lived for much of his adult life. It is a book, however, that marks a more mature (but no more reticent) voice, where Smith’s sense of his own humanity seeps in and mixes in with his other concerns, reflectively. “When It’s Time to Go,” is a perfect example of this latter development:

It was quarried deep beneath the earth
             where it is dark
                           and light comes only
                                          with a chisel
                                                           or dynamite
                                                                          and is everlasting
except that some part of the stone retains darkness
and holds it deep within its heart
               while the boot soles of other hearts bounce off.
You wander there
               after the thanks
                             and you go home. (p. 354)

We sense this relatedness again, and with no less eloquence and with no less concern for the greater humanity, in “Beyond the Season” from the book Grassroots:

Winter is a type of entropy
where the wind socks down mountain valleys
heaving boulders from frost cracked perches,
spreading alluvial plains across the heart
white and then gone as wind boils tarmac.
If there were time I would say we wait it out . . . (p. 577)

The Collected Poems of Jared Smith is testament to a life of poetry well lived, and we by virtue of Smith’s generous voice, are members of this well-lived life, too. To read the poetry of Jared Smith is to stand beside him, to live with him “in the plate glass window factory, [where] the workers never go home / not even when they fish dark rivers beneath the stars” (p. 261). The Collected Poems is a work that carries with it the weight of consciousness. It is not the consciousness of glowing embers, but rather, of the igniting breath.

 

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