Over the past quarter-century Charlie Smith has published to wide acclaim several books of poetry and prose, taught at Princeton and received grants from everybody from the Guggenheim Foundation to the Aga Khan. Word Comix is a new peak for him, as he further refines his craft and his voice.
Smith’s poetry collections from the late 80’s/early 90’s, though powerful and thought-provoking, often had a ‘prose-writer on vacation’ feel to them; the lyricism, the surprise, the compression that are in such evidence in his more mature work, seemed to take a back seat to too-lengthy descriptions and excessive narrative that felt like…prose. There was a fanciness to them that felt self-conscious, a flaw to be expected from the early work of most writers, even the best ones.
Starting with Heroin and other Poems, Smith’s poetry changed, became sleeker, more dangerous; frank confessions studded with jaw-dropping imagery, delivered in a voice laconic, direct, and easy to fall in love with. Clearly Smith has reached that point where he has studied his craft enough that he can wow you without seeming to break a sweat; his pages have that graceful, relaxed, ‘make-it-look-easy’ vibe you only get from the very best: from an Auden, a Chaplin, a Gretzky.
These new poems read as if Smith has done a lot of living, carefully observed it all, and then patiently boiled off all the fat, until all that’s left is the point: the electric meaningful moment, pregnant with possibilities. Word Comix engulfs you with moments of crisis, turning points, roads not taken, and absolutely no filler. And personally, that’s pretty much all I’m ever looking for between two covers.
It’s interesting to notice that Smith is something of an ‘urban pastoralist,’ and it’s when he’s in that mode that things really get exciting. Book after book has included lush, febrile descriptions of the natural world, often focusing on vegetation:
through everglades and hammocks into a mixed deciduous woodland
where hummingbirds and woodpeckers cohabit in the downy hawthorn bushes
and the pepper-and-salt skipper moth, hunted
by the white-eyed vireo and other creatures,
batters its way through broken branches of shortleaf pine…
— “Eastern Forests,” from Women of America
Ferns, firs, birches to either side. At the top, revelation
which is the point: there’s a world beyond yourself.
— “Monadnock,” from Word Comix
Not being much of a nature-lover, it’s a constant delight for me to see the same set of eyes trained on the mean streets of Smith’s mythical Manhattan, a strange place crammed full of love-starved wretches, addicts trying to kick, nobodies left desperate after losing, and drunken narrators as likely to name-check Alan Ladd or Walt Kelly’s Pogo as they are Beckett or Homer. And that voice, always that voice: hard-eyed, funny, sad, and transparently, breathtakingly honest. It’s the all-American voice of the tough-guy intellectual, picking fights with strangers while quoting Kafka or Matisse’s letters. The narrator’s macho swagger fizzles into a stooped shuffle; his rage twists itself into impotent regret. There’s an alertness, an intelligence here I’m grateful for, but there’s always loneliness. Smith’s work frequently zooms in on isolated figures dealing with one of life’s inevitable bad hands, picking up the pieces, waiting or searching for something—a bus, redemption, or the next romantic disaster:
I flutter and scramble, I drag myself overhand,
leaving a trail, abreast of the trash,
keeping up with dereliction, equal with the failed repairs,
the designs growing more marginal as we speak.
It is here I find the endings that in their perfections of absolute loss
have become beginnings again, the bitten-off phrases and
inconspicuous wadding of spoiled opportunity about to start over.
I see the lost revamped. The mortified recast.
The crapped out recombined with the useless to make the futile.
All the old possibilities-corrigendious, bone-headed and radiant—are here.
[— from “Clean”]
Of course what first hooked me and keeps me coming back is the playfulness and originality, the way Smith can compress an epic back-story into a short, strange, and strangely-evocative burst of language. It’s best to give Smith the last word:
“As It Happened”
Out in the snow
in bare places, windswept
behind filling stations in Vermont
on hillsides in the Maritime Provinces
by lakes where picnic benches
take up the thread of loneliness
the stillness behind
a remark recalled as one drives home
from the council meeting
like an attempt to return
dying in its own arms
the wind dying down
a softness in your wife’s face
reminding you of something
you thought you’d never forget.
— Darrell Epp