Black Stone by Dale Smith
(Effing Press, 2007)
I have a problem with Dale Smith’s new collection, and this problem will take some explaining.
First, let me state that Smith’s poetry is reminiscent for me of an increasingly prevalent type of writing. It is the poem imitating objective, or faux-objective, annotation: a diary-like progression of events, scenes, thoughts and images, as the poet perceives them, and as they subsequently pass through his or her mind. This heterogeneous sense-data is then presented to the reader under the aegis of a concentrated lyricism:
Rain falls with force this morning, water rushing up to our curb. Sidewalk chalk drawings “melt” under the weight of those mighty drops.
My argument, and my sensation, however, when reading a poetry such as this, is that such writing constitutes a strong imposition on its reader, and not in an entirely positive sense. This imposition is not that generated from the demand placed on a reader of a very active participation with the poetic text. Rather, it is an imposition of a very specific sort, which consists in the presumption that the reader is immediately interested by the mere annotation or presentation of such daily ephemera:
Two crows caw in sycamore branches. Twilight, a red sky fades, broken branches. The television flickers and John Kerry promises to defeat G.W. Bush in the November election.
All of which is attractive, perhaps: but is it anything else? The term I would use for this type of writing is that of a diluted impressionism: that is, the poet wanders with his or her notebook, the poet sees, the poet hears, the poet feels, the poet lives, and the poet writes. We are perhaps meant to take these largely unformed, largely unstructured impressions, as being a revealing ensemble of quotidian experience.
I would argue however that the only thing which separates this type of, what I would term, largely expositional writing, from the conservatism of Ted Kooser, Billy Collins or Galway Kinnell, is the degree of apparent closure given: that is, whether or not the poem forms a tidy loop of reflection at its end. Smith’s poems of course, such is his evident poetic intelligence, do not do this; but this is simply the reason why, despite the foundation of this poetry in a largely conservative confessional mode, it is far more palatable to readers who would normally turn away from Collins and Kooser with justified scorn.
Thus, Smith remarks to us that he is drinking coffee. That today he went to the park with his son. That he and his wife had sex last night. That it is raining outside:
Five p.m. Tin foil crumpled in green grass. Hoa boils water for nettle tea and now I hear the kitchen faucet running. K skipped his nap. His voice comes from another room. He has set up his tent now, camping by the window.
And so it goes on . . . This may seem an uninspired critical question, but it is an honest one: what is the interest of this? What justifies this writing’s ontology? Where is the analysis or reflection cast upon such details? Where is the process, the applied praxis? Where is the teleological direction into which such ephemera are being complexly and intricately channeled? What is, in brief, this recording for?
The precedent for this type of writing is, I believe, crucial to recognize, as for me it represents the current state of what happens when the two movements of late American Confessionalism (no less than Lowell and Plath) and a slightly tired current of the New York School, are made to fit more contemporary, and also more vital, aesthetic parameters.
Smith would surely insist -- and perhaps he is right, this is of course just one critic’s reaction -- that his recording of such details is for a very specific purpose, that it does indeed serve defined poetic ends. And it is true that the book initially establishes a very interesting object to justify such accumulation, namely, the fascinating initial idea of the Black Stone, “the dark heart”, the often cruel human core which lies beneath all such daily meanderings. This is the book’s nominal subject, and it is true that Smith constantly returns to this imagogical and conceptual orientation, whose power and poetic suggestiveness is evident:
Throw a black stone
deep in the night
for the old man to find
This black stone then becomes the new child in his wife’s womb, and also perhaps the tightly wound knot of primeval birth and death inside every being.
But to what extent does Smith dig into this heart? To what extent does he attempt to understand its origins, its constitution, and the many ramifications it may thus have on the many daily events he largely describes? This is, for me, the precise origin of my sense of vague dissatisfaction experienced with Dale Smith’s book: that, contenting himself with a simple, and largely unstructured, series of annotations, Smith proceeds to give us a Livre d’heures which, while recounting the weather, events and images, does not make these lists cohere into a unified, or unifying, vision.
For all of this, it’s also important to note however that Smith’s substantial lyrical gifts are undeniable. Take a passage such as:
Dreaming last night of cold sea air. The country was saturated with a coastal system, and the smell of the ocean spread far into the Rockies, beyond the Plains and south, here, to Texas. This morning the air is much colder, but it doesn’t carry with it the sea.
There are other beautiful examples, such as: “What painful acts of memory get carried against the house, the trees and each other.” My question is simply: why are such rich and poignant passages buried under a pile of mere event-lists? O’Hara knew how to turn such annotation to poetic effect. But too often here it seems to me a mere waste of Smith’s ample poetic acumen.
The following remark, then, will no doubt sound overly blunt, but it is necessary to state the matter directly, not to pander and not to dissimilate: the problem lies for me precisely in the fact that I have absolutely no inherent interest in Dale Smith drinking coffee, walking in the park with his son, or the bodily processes of his wife Hoa: “And now Hoa says she feels something, surges coming every ten minutes or so”. Well, the critic is pleased for both Hoa and her husband; but he is no more interested in these fragments than he would be if he overheard such conversation at a bus-stop. (This critical sensation on my part does not, I would insist, stem from any degree of prudishness: Alice Notley or Jennifer Moxley may very well recount any number of real or imagined intimate details of their lyrical personae, without us feeling such imposition). What is the goal then of such lines? Where is their deeper penetration?
Smith seems to make certain attempts, and it is sometimes effective. But it also often ends up being rather simply descriptive: “A strong cramping force brings out this earth-bound creature.” Is this all? Is this an appropriately rich and complex description of such an inconceivably rich and complex event? We glimpse the idea that the child is somehow abandoning the divinity of his or her prior, pre-incarnate state, to enter into the world. But does “earth-bound” appropriately convey this? Similarly: “K walked along, grew tired and demanded to be carried.” From years of reading Confessionalism and the British Movement, I really do not care about poets’ observations regarding the moods of their children.
Perhaps this should be seen as a type of poetic minimalism, where the pared-down exposition of events is left to do most of the work of evocation, as well as its own self-analysis. But, in spite of his occasional beautiful passages, I am often left almost entirely numb by Smith’s other formulations: “Drank a couple of beers. Washed dishes. Made tea. Tended Hoa and Hart.” Smith may perhaps suggest that this apparent rambling, annotative style is in fact very studied, modulated and aware, and sometimes, as in the very effective examples quoted above, this is evident. But more often than not, I feel, the result is that, whether what was aimed for was a simple, direct minimalism, or a charming confessional honesty, the reader is left wanting.
It is necessary to point out that this critique in no way constitutes a condemnation of Smith’s book. Many readers apparently do not feel the same reservations, the same dissatisfaction as I do for the type of impressionistic exposition I feel Smith often represents. Perhaps these other readers see, in such personal ephemera, an intimate reflection of their own lives. But I look to poetry for the development of ways of thinking, seeing and being, which go beyond that of the record. Smith no doubt feels this is also his poetry’s aim, and sometimes this is evident. I would simply liked to have seen Smith let loose his poetic gifts, giving them a more open and free range, and thus making such records obey a more total style and vision.
Nicholas Manning teaches comparative literature at the University of Strasbourg, France. In 2004 he took his MA in twentieth-century poetics from the Sorbonne (Paris IV), and from 2003-2006 held a scholarship at the Ecole normale supérieure of the rue d'Ulm. His poems, articles, translations and reviews have appeared in Verse, The Argotist, Fascicle, Free Verse, Cross Connect, BlazeVox, MiPoesias, Parcel, Fiera Lingue, Cordite, Dusie, Eratio, Otoliths, Aught, Shampoo, among others. In 2006 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His first chapbook of poems– Novaless I-XXVI –is out now from Achiote Press. He is the editor of The Continental Review, and maintains the weblog The Newer Metaphysicals.