This looks good - the New York Times reviews Devotions, the new book of poetry by Bruce Smith.
By STEPHEN BURT
Published: August 4, 2011
Bruce Smith’s new poems move fast and travel far, from Newtonian physics to the “fiery . . . riderless horse” of Christian apocalypse, “from the jet engine / as it gins the clouds” to “the hand-iron press and the sewing machine.” Most of those poems, though, begin in one place: a notion of blue-collar manhood, full of rough edges, frustration, defiance and pride. Smith’s Vietnam-era draftees, present-day stevedores, touring musicians and Iraq war veterans, along with their “black, white, sallow, olive, red, black kids,” inspire grand flights, tumultuous catalogs, as in a poem about drought: “Wherever there was water — the upended lid of a mayonnaise jar / in the gutter, the gutter, the sober silver puddle, the frenzied lake, / the tear ducts, the dew, the beveled rain — we drank.” When Smith is not speeding through such cascades of nouns, he revs up other repetitions: “They come like rats. . . . They want to save you. They want to slap you silly. They pet / the kitty. They bring gossip. . . . They’ve got questions for further study.” The plural noun to which each “They” refers is an obscenity most poets would not use.
This exhilarating style marks a break, and an improvement, from most of Smith’s five earlier books. Each individual poem is called a “Devotion,” as if it were a new verse form: “Devotion: Redshift,” “Devotion: Coin-Op.” The long lines and longer sentences suit not just anger (Smith has plenty) but also generosity. “Devotion: The Insects,” for example, welcomes onto its page “so many nymphs and midges, scales and mealy bugs . . . known by their gravitas, their bathos, / their itch, their twitching antennae — clubbed or bristled — their sobbing, / sucking mouthparts, their 50,000 eyes.” The insects are armored soldiers, but also workaholics and writers, grotesque in their obsessive tasks; “dead by dawn, but what a song, an inconsolable male chorus.”
Like other red-blooded, gritty male writers, Smith can sound ambivalent about his vocation: “The artist is a creep with his little boxes, but the athlete is a man / who has stolen glory in all its forms. . . . I’m always a boy / as I sit or stand in the shouting place” (that is, the bleachers) “and breathe the doses of men.” Sports may make art look wimpy, but war makes sports seem fake, while art can make war look wrong. “I was a coach,” Smith recalls (he once coached football). “I made the children run and stop. I made them watery and sincere.” Those who “went off / to Fort Drum,” however, “learned . . . what I did not teach them . . . And from Fort Drum / came back damaged and disfigured, grieved in their bodies and their skin / was different. Some cold.”
Being a poet is not like being a soldier; it might be more like being a carpenter. “Poem” comes from the ancient Greek poema, something made; “Devotion: High School” likens poetry first to what “boys (mostly) in shop class” do, making “something / they can carry, although they carry little.” Smith then redefines poems as expressions, as protests: “They hammer out a loud first / person. They like the noise, . . . swords / beat into swords.” “Devotion: Soup” compares poets instead to cooks, “Wanting to use everything . . . Rind, pith, placenta, the orts, the scourings.”
Though Smith never sounds like Walt Whitman, his goals make the comparison hard to avoid. Like Whitman, Smith explores boundless attachment to an America that can appall him; like Whitman, Smith wants both intimacy and a grand, almost mystically inclusive, voice: “The audience / for this (we can’t agree) will be you or homies, Buddhists, / Prince Hal in Birkenstocks, birds, texting men, enraptured, / ruptured girls left alone in the tent city.” Smith, too, hears America singing, or at least making noise: “Save me from the door slam and the plain / song of the mosquito, the pandemonium of car alarms, the Donald / Duck of the mall, and the twelve-tone row of the adored.”
Smith’s manner can also suggest rock ’n’ roll (Bruce Springsteen comes first to mind), yet almost all the musicians he names, whose careers he can describe at length, play jazz or soul: James Brown, Ornette Coleman, Al Green, the Miles Davis of “Bitches Brew.” He is, in fact, that rare white poet who tries hard to notice specifically black experience (not just black music). His big lists help, since they encourage double exposures, poems that hold multiple stories at once: black and white, urban and rural, outdoor and indoor. Looking at New York after 9/11, Smith envisions “slave paths through the scrub oaks of Alabama,” where he once taught, and then his native Philadelphia: “Everyplace I see is somewhere else.” His best new poems on places see upstate New York, especially Syracuse, where Smith teaches now. There he finds “the brakes of the bus to Toronto, the dialect / from the diaspora, the patois of cold war radio. / Bosnian dance troupe in the strip mall. / Sudanese boys on their knees in motels. / Sulk and snow like a pill crushed into a powder and snorted.”
“Devotions” pays homage to feminine mysteries, but it remains a book about prototypically (or stereotypically) male experience: civilian fascination with war, for example, and the sometimes unwanted drumbeat of the male sex drive. When Smith lets his guard down he can get maudlin: “the sadness of songs / made in the ratio / of bruise for bruise.” Yet if the people and scenes here can be cartoons, they are vivid ones, volatile, not without thought. Among the sprawling views and long loud lines, Smith intersperses sparser fare: sonnets and couplets, unobtrusive in their skewed rhyme (“open” and “stolen,” “hate” and “complicate”). A sonnet about an electric guitar shows justified pride in its sound effects: “a magnet wound around a steel coil — / a Les Paul — the quavers I converted to an electric boil / that simmered into the sweet, fry-oil air.” Such moments break up what might otherwise be an excess of his onrushing, more-is-more mode.
As it is, “Devotions” gives just enough. Most books of new poems are either too long or leave readers wanting more. “Devotions” does neither; it is ample as well as ambitious, agile and unpredictable as well as viscerally affecting. For all that its born-to-run characters yearn for escape, it’s a book to stay inside; it’s exhausting to read, and yet it’s a book to get lost in, one you won’t exhaust any time soon.h