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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas (2013) and the recipient of an NEA fellowship for 2013. This year, Black Lawrence Press will bring out a volume of his essays and reviews, most of which appered in The Cortland Review.

On Jordan Smith


Driving through Utica, New York one spring evening back in the 1970s, a colleague who was with me remarked that Utica had never recovered from the Depression—of 1893. That remark comes to mind when I read the work of Jordan Smith: our wounds are old, the sutures still visible under the sleeve. But just as economics undergoes a metamorphosis to history, so scar tissue, it is always said, forms more tightly than unblemished skin. It is both a reminder, pointing to the disorders out of which we arise, and an earnest against the future.

Smith writes three kinds of poems: meditative lyric poems about upstate New York, poems about music (mostly) and art, and dramatic monologues that update Browning by way of Richard Howard (one of his teachers at Johns Hopkins). Sometimes the three merge. Even when music is the thing exalted, the song is muted, and the speaker as likely to muse on the wonder of its eternal relevance as if he would, in the next moment, burst into song himself. Let me hasten to secure the very word song inside quotation marks, for music in language is a thing to be referenced sooner than undertaken, say what you will. Unfortunately, the temptation to think that referencing music is enough to give a poem its dash of song has led to all sorts of mediocrity, has led to the approval of "chopped prose" in Kinnell's apt phrase. Smith is well aware of the trap, and to say that his poems are "quiet" is not to say that they are deficient in music. Rather, it is to say that they acknowledge the chasm between the music of jostling consonants and vowels, syllables scannable on the flatness of the page in forms' deployments, and the effect of actual notes that may or may not bear linguistic content for a Mozart or Doc Watson. And thus one could make the case, as Smith seems sometimes about to do, that poetry stands in an elegiac relationship to the music it refers to and the music it implies. And this in turn puts us in mind of all the elegiac bestowals that commence when means come up short and the ineffable seems to loom in the beyond in dreams and memories, to say nothing of the desire to experience beauty with a capital B and perhaps there discover what goes beyond the palliative and therapeutic, where so much of our daily poetry founders.

All three of these types imply memory and its cultural territory. They are backwards-looking, not a party to the "hope" that Emerson identified as the proper stance toward what is not-yet. They are equally about the legacies of imagination and the art and artifice of the towns that dot the riversides of the Hudson and Mohawk. Are they transplanted immigrant communities? Do they converge to share a destiny many years on? What is it like to confront and, in some sense, to take on the old? Smith frequently lets the reader know what's on his mind: "But I was thinking of what it meant to be/ In the evening of things..."("Sitting Alone in the Moonlight"). At what point does our desire to take on the olden things so depart from curiosity, growing to become custodial in the way that caritas is custodial? It is as if in investigating how these communities managed to cling to the past, the poet is on a quest to find something definitive about our relationship to time itself. The search is not simple, as it ramifies in ways that mix public and private. It has become an old canard, for instance, that America is a country minus a deep past, such as European countries can claim. And yet, many regions in the country bear the stamp of the Old Country and thus smuggle the past— and time—into the present. In its old-fashioned and sometimes odd municipalities, its deep ethnic loyalties and Horatian ties to the land, temps perdu joins the quotidian.

For all that, Smith, like all good poets who have educated and aestheticized themselves beyond the prerequisites for townsperson citizenship, acknowledges an unavoidable alienation from things to which he is also drawn, a melancholy paradox appropriate for the artist who escapes:

      I'm too disheveled for suburban
      Church-going, too uneasy
      In my stride for the country, and
      That's just the beginning of how
      I don't fit ...
                                        "Grooms Corners" (Three Grange Halls)

But we are to understand this as less a resistance to commit to a common fate, than an allegiance to the impersonal knowingness that goes with love of place. It is in turn a submission to native disposition, though it does not imply belonging:

      Listen, you upstate hillsides
      Which I have loved
      So loyally, you woodlots
      and trailers and old farm houses,
      Your satellite dishes...
                              ("Money Musk")

Naiveteé is not available, but neither is the full-on irony of downstate natives. Smith's seeming antiquarianism is in fact something that places him, on the one hand, beside the clapboard participation of Hayden Carruth, and on the other, beside the childhood snapshots of John Ashbery. It is his sense that so much of the upstate narrative melts, like the dirty snow of mud season, long after the season of the suburbanites has arrived in its self-important glory. These sensibilities feel right at home in surroundings that, they suspect, would have been superannuated, except for the mystery of the past which, as John Gardner knew, holds the imagination in funny but tenacious ways: Palmyra, Utica, Rochester, Buffalo. And notice that we're not talking about Lake George and Saratoga Springs, the watering-holes of the rich, but of Onondaga and Troy. Then there are the little towns—Oriskany and Glenn's Falls, the towns of far-off beginnings, Russia, Paris, Rome, and Poland, hamlets tethered to whole cultures. With the world of Jordan Smith. you get upstate New York, with its stop-time look, littered town squares, and grange halls, string bands and plaid-shirt. The nineteenth century is also present, sitting in the back. You get as well a grudging respect for the prejudices of place, of the disqualifying (and yet somehow satisfying or at minimum, wistful) sense that one doesn't belong.

But meditation is a covering and runs the danger of a stultifying reliance on stasis: the object of meditation has nowhere to go, and the subject's only action is mulling, its go-to verb—"is." Left in the absence of dynamism, yet claiming the privilege of the bestower of blessings, however turned into prose by time and circumstance, Smith often reaches for music and art to expand the view. Music, including opera and the dance, runs through Smith's work like a key vein through the limb of woodland animal, and like a vein, it has its own pulse that it manifests, even as it also represents stylized movement. Just as Smith's poems have been a meditation on upstate life ("just to catch a glimpse of you as you once were"), with its intrinsic nostalgias, so the love of music coordinates, indeed orchestrates a soundtrack of representations that invoke music's ability to compensate for meditation's stillness.

Is the meditator, then, a rhapsode? But of course! When Smith says, "the landscape grows deeper," as he does in "Vine Valley," you had better watch out. You are likely to wind up remembering that "all we are given are the steps of a mower/ coming home in the evening along the sheaves," and thereby hangs a sight, in fact a manifold of vision, where, of the heron, we

      can only watch her pass, blue and dun pinions
      spread, until the scuddings of dines and river
      are netted in her flight, forgotten...
      And of the old hymns, another kind of custom:
      Remember, I asked myself,
      that pause before the hymn's last chord,
      how the tenor draws one long breath and turns
      for a moment toward the pews,
      filled with the pride his voice is given, sure
      that gift is beyond his measure.
                                        ("Apology for Loving the Old Hymns")

If the word "beyond" shows its trip wires, you're on the right path. As he remarks in "For Dulcumer & Doubled Voice, " "...we know our lives in the fall/ and swell of strings..." Our capacities sometimes stop short of comprehension, that is, pull up at experience and sense something important in the impossibility of wrapping the mind around the very thing we undergo, be it of the moment, or of deep time. Acknowledging this as "something important," a phrase itself that perhaps moves us an inch closer to the fusion of knowledge and felt experience, leaves Smith beholden to the various arts he evokes, none moreso than music, since its relationship to language is rarely desperate. Moreover, its ability to gesture restores the poet's sense that the numinous can, after all, borrow raiment sufficient to reveal itself to us without dragging religion in its wake—almost as if to suggest that religion is music played in the wrong key.

Louis D. Rubin, Jr., the eminent Southern critic and one of my professors at Chapel Hill, wrote:

      There were no Good Old Days; my father's generation knew that very well.     

      Yet we are our memory, and we exist in Time. What we can know is the   

      distance we have traveled, and where we have been.

And yet, Smith's recourse to dramatic monologue suggests that we can imagine, with some plausibility, places that are a part of only the common memory:

      Your loyalty was to the older sadness
      Of mingled song: pavans danced
      with courtly airs, grief mixed with gladness,
      With elegance.
      This was art's token,
      Which you wore gladly. But now our consorts, broken,
      Play tunes of common madness;
      There is no cure.
                                    ("A Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times")

There is no cure for the decimation of the old loyalties. The poem remembers one man's quip at the death of Charles I's court composer Willilam Lawes: "Will. Lawes was slain by such whose wills were laws." That is, the rational will always seeks to unseat the song and the dream, supersede the first with its successor, the second, override poetry with criticism. Smith is not unaware that the period of history in which he lives and writes is one more attuned to Cromwell than to Lawes. I used to set as a theme topic the following question: Which would you rather be, the last of the old or the first of the new? By sizable majorities my students would choose the latter. But Yeats was of the opinion that the last brought one the benefits of both nuance and beauty, which required time to craft, just as he understood the labor it would take to secure the powers of artifice.

But then Smith avers in one of his key poems,

      ...if I had hoped to kneel at last
      On fallen cattails, drink
      And be absolved of my pettiness, minor
      Fears, minor affections,
      I might tell this more simply.

                           ("Cedar Shoals")

What then is the effect of meditation? If the object is what escapes articulation and can only perhaps be adumbrated in sister arts, what is its status and relevance, such that a poet of accomplishment would be interested? In the same poem, whose meditative title suggests that, imaginatively speaking, we are in a marginal way, Smith writes,

      ...How can I tell you what I felt then,
      When I had lost myself

      In that trace of spirit—fleet, unspent, common—
      And found at last nothing
      More than insistent, untranslatable stone.

The stone, as Yeats' catalytic image, returns us to the question of intelligibility, where, in the same poem, fearless Whitman ("the smallest sprout shows/ There is really no death") provides no comfort, urging

      ...denial
      Of what lies so deep in
      Longing and grief, is so unanswerable,
      It filled my mouth like stone.

In the midst of elegy or on the trail of a natural analogue, the fear is of incoherence, although the fact would be a given in a tragic world. It may be that Smith has stumbled on the post-tragic, for beyond intelligibility there is the question of belief and whether desire itself counts as a kind of belief:

      Listen,
      If I said such desire seems a kind of love,
      Would you take that on faith,
      Or want to? I sat by those cliffs a long time.

The question of faith exists (or persists) alongside that of coherence (i.e., what is "so unanswerable"). Phrases like "For once I would speak plainly/ About what I have loved well." ("Remains") and "I knew that my death meant nothing,/ Although there were no words to appease my wonder at it" ("The Dream of Horses") show that the threat of chaos always underlies the discourses of coherence and form and momentary stays. It's not really to show we're adroit with abstractions that we stalk the questions we do. Each question for Smith joins up with a memory of a scene, its exemplum. Perhaps, in the spirit of truth-tracking, these meditations enact what they seek, moments of equilibrium, for these things are not, finally, derivative from nature:

      Nothing speaks
      Of the stillness in the scattered
      Shade of the rafters.
      Only a shrilling of crickets and peepers,
      And the redwings
      Crying from the marsh,
      Flushing and darting—what peace
      Could I have take from these...

                          ("Remains")

Good question, especially when you consider both the abundance of natural upstate charms and the poet's predisposition to consider that they might have something to offer, something connected to "peace." But it is to his credit that he doesn't stop there with the questionable notion of closure (or the more fatal—and romantic—closure of a quietus). Rather, he seems to find what he's willing to accept, even if it isn't what, precisely, he's seeking:

      The memory of loss, which
      Is also the fear of it, let each
      Step alongside this blossoming be
      An accomplishment of the moment's
      Graceful resolution of labor and praise.

                          ("Grooms Corners" from Three Grange Halls)

Praise and grace go together here, and they share an arbitrary nature, not unlike chaos. But maybe this is why priests place so much emphasis on the gratuitous nature of grace. It not a bad place to be. At least it's a place we can live with:

      I drive to work in that diminishment
      Of light that comes from staring at the sun.
      The world's not over yet, but it's done.
                          ("AM Classical")

Central to Smith's output, bringing as it does all his themes and moves to the fore are Three Grange Halls, originally a chapbook. A grange hall is itself just such a slightly mysterious, fuddy-duddy, yet benign and communitarian, structure fit to provide for an equally mysterious membership. You might say the same for the poems, demotic, yet mysterious in their all-purpose iambic tetrameter and pentameter garb, that set out to describe them. The grange at "Grooms Corners," the first of the halls is "a sometime/ Church now," but that fact does not diminish the look of skepticism upon the arrival of the speaker, "without even/A dog for an excuse." While his arrival may invite a cool response, he is anything but unsympathetic to the new iteration of the grange: "I'm thinking of how the word-/Made-flesh is everywhere evident." And yet, as he imagines his encounter, his thoughts bend to an alternative, a working farm:

      Pollen and pitch, buds and seed husks,
      A tractor jouncing slowly between
      The orchard rows. Better work
      Than praise, although my own mind's
      Labor on this day is this self-conscious
      Forgetting of forgetting which becomes
      Almost a prayer.

This grange hall, ironicall sacralized, presents its own temptations—of closure, of "the vocative in the place/Of mere presence..." The poem concludes with characteristically nuanced equipoise:

      The hymn
      Dwindles to its blessing, and I get on
      With my walk, the congregation with the sermon,
      Each a text shadowed by the mind's
      Disaffection from this
      Unclarified, unintended plenitude...

If the fullness baffles the unwelcome mind, in "Brunswick Center," the speaker finds difficulty locating the grange hall for a dance and frets over the naming of the granges and of the towns themselves:

      (East, West,
      North, Center) as if speech mapped
      another form of scarcity. The grangers
      Hated the railroads and tight money.
      They wanted a community like

      Water...

Now lost, he imagines he might more profitably be anywhere than where he is, in space or time,

      Maybe I
      Should be in North Brunswick or
      Down the Hudson in East
      Greenbush where Melville taught
      School, already caught in the lifelong
      Habit of being didactic about
      What he knew to be frankly
      Unknowable.

Here we come up against an "opacity" against which only labor, with its rhythms and largely predictable risks, works, reconfiguring time in the plebian image. What's "unknowable" speaks not just to the quality of our questionings, but to our willingness to acquiesce to knowing (and hence to ignorance), at the expense of other equal, if not superior, commitments of mind and being. Once more, the speaker finds himself moving into position to locate, while not in space or time, Yeatsian paradox of thought versus embodiment.

      From one side of the grange hall
      To the other, as if beyond all
      Opacity were an argument
      For light's commonality with dust.

If the image speaks for itself, it's a testimony to our terminal nature, energized by Darwin, but drained by the author of Moby Dick. The place of dance, so hard to find, so lacking in tragedy (That's the thing about a dance. It isn't tragic."—"Elektra") becomes the place of Yeatsian questioning:

      Each road, plainspoken on the map, pointing
      To where the dance goes on, somewhere
      You can't get from here.

The final grange hall, "Malta," finds us among ruins. The poem opens with a time-lapse of dilapidation ("A dozer and backhoe parked in the lot"). But the speaker counters the disappearance of his subject with a freewheeling specificity that moves from do-it-yourself renewal to the draw of music:

      But the clapboard
      Grange hall at the junction of Route
      67 and East Line Road has stood empty
      Too long on a road given over to useful
      Occupations (a lumber yard, gas
      Station, feed store, and nursery).
      I could get a chain for the saw and pressure-
      Treated timbers for a retaining wall,
      And if there's time, stop on the way
      Back at the mall for another Bill
      Monroe tape...

This burst of activity, part civic-spirited, part deeply private, questions our allegiance to particulars of space and time, "On a road that's just one mile/ After another, one mini-mart/ To the next." Surely categorical fidelity ironizes itself in the midst of such ubiquitous tackiness. Near the end of the trio, the speaker exclaims,

      How tenuous is our hold, and on
      What, that we can be dispossessed
      So easily?

It is as close to a cri de ceour as Smith, whose expressive register is most commonly gentle and unforced, gets. And it's not surprising that he walks it back:

      No
      Wonder I'm off to the hardware store
      For tools to make this endless
      Work of loss seem like something
      I intend...

I believe in the energetic travel of this red plaid shirt of a poem, if that is what it is. The damage control, here as elsewhere, is fine, and that, I realize, is a funny thing to say about damage control. But if loss is dispossession—which is a less robust form of depriving—can we argue that we are dispossessed only, and somehow not double-shackled by (conventional) symptoms like depression and despair? The final line of "Malta," tells us that where we are is, in some sense, what we intend, a notion raised elsewhere but not brought forward as a proposition. But here, with the note of finality ("If there were anywhere else to go.") goes the note of necessity. It is at this point that art returns: to sing, draw, to praise, to write. These things mirror necessity, except that they favor us. In poems now appearing, Smith writes about the insane but terribly lucid John Clare, who knew better than any poet how to play the lot he was dealt, how to erect the retaining wall, how to do "whatever you do when you've done enough." In "A Chinese Landscape," he considers, again in a manner not unbecoming the Irish poet, how the lyric subsumes dispossession and necessity without resorting to abstraction. It's the art that puts us on equal footing with and within history:

      If I could draw,
      I'd praise those shapes—as elemental, as uncanny
      As the Maine woods that made Thoreau cry out
      Who are we, what are we?—with just a few lines,
      Sharp and suggestive at once, and if I could sing, well,
      I'd find a banjo-tuned mountain ballad to take all
      Loneliness into a few broken high notes.

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