||May 1st, 2010
The selected longer poems of Jared Smith, edited and published by Alan Hoey
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These poems were written over a 30 year period, and are selected from the author's first eight critically acclaimed volumes of poetry.
Jared Smith, Looking Into the Machinery, by JoSelle Vanderhooft
ISBN Number: 9780979668425
Reviewer: JoSelle Vanderhooft
In past issues of Pedestal, I have enthusiastically reviewed several titles by Jared Smith: books Where Images Become Imbued With Time and The Graves Grow Bigger Between Generations, as well as his powerful spoken word CD, Seven Minutes Before The Bombs Drop. In that time, I have found that his work is much like the land that haunts his pages and tracks: boundless, troubled, steeped in history and dirt, and endlessly inventive. Smith sings of the United States in its beauty as well as its hideousness, and his unflinching ability to do so has long given his work of any length a truly epic scope.
Looking Into The Machinery takes Smith’s epic sensibilities one step further, into actual epic poems. At 108 pages, this collection contains only twelve poems. While a few of them, such as “Where The Farthest Galaxies Roar Into Nothingness” and the book’s title poem hale from collections already reviewed in this magazine (Where Images and The Graves Grow Bigger, respectively), many of them are earlier works, some dating back as far as the early 1980s. Not wanting to cover ground already trod, I will focus the majority of my review on these works—coincidentally, the pieces that I think can truly be classified as American epics.
The book’s longest poem even gives itself away in the title. Song Of The Blood: An Epic appeared as a stand-alone book in 1983 (published by The Smith Press) and was excerpted in a number of magazines and journals. Sadly, it appears to have fallen into the obscurity that so much U.S. verse ultimately faces, a fact which makes its reemergence in this hefty collection all the more wonderful.
Another U.S. epic, Alan Ginsberg’s HOWL famously addressed that poet’s generation. And while Song Of The Blood similarly speaks (at least most powerfully) to those who can remember the 1940s, 50s and 60s, this poem does not confine its reach to the experiences of a single generation or even a single story.
For example, Smith begins the poem several millennia in the past by speaking in the same voice as Homer, who pleaded with the Muse to sing within him in the opening lines of The Odyssey. At the same time, however, Smith reaches forward into the present by invoking not Clio but an even more primal and eternal song; that of land, time, and cosmic energy.
Song burning in earthen fragments,
filling the granite bonds of city,
building the bones of time,
Sing in the arteries of my mind.
You insubstantial but emanating source,
pass these individual walls
and course through the pavement we have come to hate,
the plate glass windows of white collar bribery,
the sweat in synthetic cloth of the labor force:
Pass through and sing
of night roads
of the cold fire glittering beyond
……...of the unity of solitude.
The odyssey upon which the speaker travels next is much more episodic and fragmented than that undertaken by Odysseus. He travels from coast to coast, stopping at various points in his past and present and in the lives of others. He looks down upon Los Angeles, haunts the pool halls of 1960s Brooklyn, dreams of the conquistadors who searched for Eldorado, and even glances into the houses and beds of strangers. Along the way, the speaker’s viewpoint tilt-a-whirls from the singular to the collective, from the third to the first person, from stories long enough to encompass histories to the barest of haiku-like glimpses (“Slate house empty in the moonlight:/ A woman’s footsteps.) Along the way he, like Odysseus, reaches out to his fathers—or U.S. poets like Crane, Roethke, and Whitman who have paved the way for him. He even reaches into the same deck of cards (U.S.-born) T.S. Eliot played out in The Waste Land, but whereas Eliot invoked such works as Hindu Vedas, the Grail legend, and Daniel Webster’s fairly obscure play The White Devil, Smith paraphrases, mashes up, and even doggerels “high culture" such as Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “low culture” such as the child’s rhyme “Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Bear.” While Elliot grabbed from several continents of literature to create a Modernist’s Grail Quest, Smith grabs in order to show the diverse cultural forces swirling through U.S. Americans’ lives—often without our notice.
The house was built in 1870 for studies which were not dreamed of then.
Try to remember
how to dismember
this kind of September
Old wood strong enough to hold six generations,
stone soaked with the seepage of one hundred eleven years.
An old car running on three cylinders
spitting gas fumes into the air
On a three year guarantee expired.
Why do we build these things to fall apart?
Sometimes I think to meet a man who will live longer than I
is the hardest thing which I can do;
knowing he will drink beer and walk these fog-draped streets
when I am no longer a part of them.
The movies of dead men. The wet sheets of Marilyn Monroe.
I loved this poem fiercely, and I would like nothing more than to devote more pages to my own Grail Quest of deciphering the symbols of Smith’s own waste land—which, ultimately, is teeming with all the life of the Song which the speaker invokes. However, doing so would do a disservice to Looking Into The Machinery’s other epics. “Dark Wing: Book Two of Song Of The Blood” is much shorter than its forebear, and its style far more fragmented. I’m sorry to say that I did not find it as appealing or as penetrable as “book one,” which I highly recommend reading first.
“Keeping The Outlaw Alive,” the book’s third epic, chronicles the life and death of John Henry “Doc” Holliday, one of the American West’s most celebrated criminals. While the trope of the U.S. outlaw is an old one that has been celebrated and vilified in countless ways, Smith’s poem fascinated me as it explored a lesser-known fact of Holliday’s life: the fact that this gambler and sharpshooter ultimately died from tuberculosis rather than “being cut down by a bullet.” The epic turns upon this fact, making its exploration and juxtaposition of Holliday’s humanity and the demands of the outlaw legend as fresh as it is daring. Interestingly, Smith’s shifts between a narration of Holliday’s life and images of the gunman on his deathbed reminded me of the techniques used in Dillinger, Todd Moore’s multi-book and ongoing epic about the life of another U.S. outlaw. In both cases, I found the call-out to U.S. cinema—and to bloody, anarchic Peckinpah-like Westerns—to be thoughtful and satisfying.
Lake Michigan is the book’s final true epic, as well as the title poem of 2005’s Lake Michigan and Other Poems (the only Smith collection I have not reviewed for Pedestal). Here, Smith’s multi-layered and multi-faceted viewpoint shifts from the (comparatively) straightforward narratives of “Song Of The Blood” and “Keeping The Outlaw Alive” to a subtler style as deep and varied as the waters of this life-giving and death-dealing lake. As the poet explains in the opening stanza:
Understanding Lake Michigan
is like shoving a small straw into the nozzle of a fire hose
& sucking while someone turns the pressure up…
Twenty-two thousand square miles of surface pressure/
forty-five thousand four hundred and ten roughly if you include the Huron lobe
narrowing down to between three and five miles in the Mackinack Straights
—not that narrow even then
to be going through a straw and out through the back of your head;
that’s like understanding Lake Michigan through a strand of neurons.
It’s like broadband when you’ve got a phone modem stuck in your head.
Note the italicized line in the preceding excerpt. If it seems out of place, there is a good reason. Like the lake with which it wrestles, Lake Michigan is mercurial, so much so that its stanzas conceal at least two additional poems (and a case, I think, can be made for raising that number to three). Periodically, a few italicized words wash up in the middle of a stanza, reshaping the poem’s flow as the lake itself “reshape[s] the city” of Chicago that depends on it for water. When assembled, this poem-within-a-poem reads:
awash in this
sea of experience
on the experience
they are participating in
before they are
a part of
In a sense, this is a microcosm for the entire poem, in which the lake’s facets as conduit of industry, water source, vista, meeting place for young lovers, and death-dealer to unlucky fishermen blend like individual water drops. Further, this little “key” poem also unlocks a powerful take on environmental conservation. Rather than giving the reader pat reminders to recycle or conserve energy, Smith urges awareness and consideration not only for environmental systems, but also for the ways in which those systems, like the aspects of a lake, intermingle.
The poems of Looking Into The Machinery are, perhaps, the most challenging of Jared Smith’s repertoire. As such, they require a reader's patience and often at least one reread to grasp. The rewards, however, are certainly worth the work, and the images and insights Smith weaves throughout will stay with the reader for a very long time. Fans of Smith’s previous collections will want to avail themselves of this book, as will those curious to see how poems such as Song Of The Blood converse with Leaves of Grass or The Waste Land.
Jared Smith Looking Into the Machinery, by Hugh Fox
Looking Into the Machinery.
By Jared Smith
2010; 112pp; Tamarack Editions,
PO Box 523, Penns Park, PA 18943-0523.
No one else on the scene today has been able to capture the downturning decay of the USA with such impact and downturned clarity as Jared Smith. There’s his own sense of aging too, Smith in the midst of personal downturns, but as he goes through the U.S. from coast to coast, north to south. there’s always the mourning sense of Time Past versus Time Present, moving slowly into a decaying Time Future: “This is as things are after increasingly knowing everything for two thousand years...// (p.88).
It’s all very subjective, personal, bleeding poetry, but somehow Smith has the gift of turning it into an objectivity that we can all identify with: “The land is not the same growing field you were born into,/but twisted into dark, broken cities...destroyed by he schemers who say they have much to give.../and who have nothing at all to give but death to the spirit..../It is enough./It is time to stop/laying off the men and women who might be our sons and daughters.” (“Information Superhighway of Death,” p.75).
An amazing book that somehow oversees a personal lifetime in terms of objective history. As I said in my blurb on the back of the book: “No other poet on the scene today has such a vibrant, prophetic sense of magnificently capturing the overview of All-Time, All-Place and turning it into personal visions.” You want to really get inside Time-Present and peronally understand what’s happening to us in terms of history, Looking Into the Machinery is the place to start.
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