Looking Up: Poems, 2010-2022.
by Dave Smith
(Louisiana State University Press, 2023. 128pp. $50.00 Hardcover / $20.95 Paperback)
“Who could have expected such late blossom?”
………..~ Dave Smith, “Butterfly Bush”
This marks the Golden Jubilee of Dave Smith, one of our great living poets, who has been steadily publishing notable books of poetry for fifty years now. One suspects Smith himself isn’t overly concerned with milestones and prizes and the like. His mind appears fine-tuned to making meaning out of the complexities whirring around him, and as long as he keeps living, likely he’ll keep writing. For Smith, poetry seems to be inextricable from a heightened attention to life, which is translated through a heightened attention to craft. In the life-giving dying words of drummer-singer Levon Helm of The Band, “Keep it going.” And that’s just what Dave Smith does, fifty years deep, and counting.
First, let’s provide some overall specs, for those unfamiliar somehow with our subject. Born in Portsmouth, in Virginia’s Tidewater region, on December 19, 1942, Dave Smith is a poet, editor, educator, and one of the foremost writers in contemporary Southern literature who has published more than twenty-five books of poetry, fiction, and literary criticism. The first in his family to earn a college degree, he received a B.A. from the University of Virginia (1965), an M.A. from Southern Illinois University (1969), and a Ph.D. from Ohio University (1976). From 1969 until 1972, between earning his master’s and doctoral degrees, he served a tour of active duty in the U.S. Air Force, achieving the rank of staff sergeant. He married Deloras Weaver in 1966—the “Dee” whose likeness appears in several poems—and they have three children, plus grandchildren. Smith served as a co-editor of The Southern Review and continues to serve as the editor of the venerable Southern Messenger Poets Series for LSU Press. Twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, Smith has earned two National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowships (1976, 1981), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1981), the Virginia Poetry Prize (1988), and a Pushcart Prize (1997), and he was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers (1996). After a long, winding career holding a number of distinguished positions at a range of academic institutions (e.g., University of Utah, State University of New York at Binghamton, University of Florida, Virginia Commonwealth University, Louisiana State University, Johns Hopkins University, and University of Mississippi) and mentoring scores of younger writers, Smith has settled into retirement from academia. Yet Dave Smith has no plans to go gentle into a dark night of older age, as declared forcefully in his latest offering, Looking Up: Poems, 2010-2022. It’s not as if Smith needed any more jewels in his crown, but Looking Up nevertheless inlaid another gem, earning the L.E. Phillabaum Poetry Award.
A fairly long time ago (probably twenty years) in a place fairly far, far away (probably 600 miles, in the middle of Tennessee), I was involved in a conversation about Dave Smith. My interlocutor claimed they didn’t care for Dave Smith. Meaning his poetry. I did care for his poetry, so puzzled, I remember asking, “What Dave Smith?” I didn’t mean for the other person to single out a particular poem or volume by Smith. I genuinely meant that there are so many Dave Smiths, surely you can’t not like them all. Reading Dave Smith’s work, I feel like there’s something for everyone. For me, Smith’s poetry is like living on an island: if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes and it’ll change. I live on an island presently, so I know this to be true. And I’ve read a good deal of Dave Smith’s poetry across the decades, and know this also to be true. Smith has got bright blazing (if not sunny) poems for you, light misting ones, deep foggy lines, downpours, wide-open windswept verses, hard-slamming hurricanes—you name it. He writes across all tones, about any manner of subjects, and—something undernoted by critics—in a variety of forms, increasingly paying attention to different stanzaic arrangements. Dave Smith is one of the lions of contemporary Southern literature; however, chameleon might be a more apt spirit animal for him, since his work is so prolific, so wide-ranging, so myriad. He’s tough to pin down, but this is what makes his poetry refreshing, ever-surprising.
Although a body of verse as wide-ranging as Smith’s defies classification, certain characteristics recur, so perhaps we should provide a general overview. First, his poems often shift dynamically between realism and imaginative flights, lighting at times into the surreal, which often evokes a feeling of the ineffable, as we experience a sense of awe at the inexplicable unreality set before us—in other words, a feeling of the sublime. Smith’s poetry is expertly attuned to realistic details, and instances of the surreal, and accompanying moments of sublimity, tend to steal up on us somewhat subtly, rather organically. Second, his work shows an exceptional dramatic sensibility, a dynamic interplay between characters, including pointed dialogue, as if he’s carefully weaving theatrical scenes into his poems. Third, Smith displays an abiding nostalgia for the South—He doesn’t hate the South! He doesn’t hate it!—yet is deeply responsive to its underlying tensions, including conflicts based on class, race, and ecological issues; in this way, he is very much a poet of the rough South, dragging into view the darker aspects of Southern living. To cite the introduction of Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry (2016), Smith is one of the prominent Southern poets whose work comes to terms with “a visibly transforming culture—a ‘roughness’ in and of itself”—and indeed is “part of what’s changing the definition of the South” (Turner 3). Fourth, he experiments endlessly with various forms and meters, and is notably adept at longer lines that carry lively rhythmic force without being clunky. Fifth, geographical settings and physical landscapes create an important sense of place throughout his work; Looking Up envisions highly diverse southscapes from Baltimore to Baton Rouge, and he includes his familiar seascapes and swamps and marshes, brilliantly drawn, but alongside a growing interest in cultivated spaces, such as suburban yards and golf courses, where the natural habitat and wildlife break through the pristine edges, marking a return of the repressed in an ecological sense. Sixth, Smith’s verse embodies a strong narrative pull—he’s an immaculate storyteller—and he often integrates autobiographical elements by including family members as characters as well as family pets; his granddaughter Lulu, for instance, becomes a favorite poetic presence in this most recent collection.
As Smith passes eighty years on the planet, he’s not slowing down; he might be speeding up. Looking Up gathers poems from the past dozen years, which totals a remarkable seventy-one poems over 111 pages. This latest collection does not disappoint; the poems here are as wildly diverse and as intellectually, as well emotionally, engaging as any of Smith’s previous efforts. In approaching Looking Up, the challenge is to represent this diversity without being reductive. I’ll organize this effort by identifying three main topics, all interrelated, at work in the collection: love, death, and the sublime. I admit these three themes, broad as they are, still leave out a lot of terrain beyond the fencelines. More particularly, I’ll explore how moments of the sublime emerge especially at thresholds between human and animal worlds, and these ineffable experiences (i.e., the sublime) tend to open us to a need for love. The pull of love is also quickened in proximity to death through aging or violent threat, and love is commonly expressed in this collection as a longing for belonging or empathy.
First, let’s encounter the sublime. In “Catching a Pig on the Farm” (2001), her review of Dave Smith’s The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems 1970-2000, esteemed critic Helen Vendler rightly notes that Smith’s verse reclaims “the grittiness of ordinary life for lyric” and she proffers this high praise: “Wordsworth came closer to what one encounters reading Dave Smith when he observed that once a work of art is created, it takes its unforced place as one of the elements of nature, to be encountered and prized by the passerby as much as any river, meadow, or mountain.” The elemental sense of Smith’s work that Vendler describes—the way his poems emerge organically and often loom before the reader’s consciousness without rational explication—also courses through the poems in Looking Up. This elemental feeling makes his poems somewhat resistant material, at least in terms of interpreting their larger meanings, even as their subjects resonate intensely and his language, while energized, is typically accessible.
Smith, quintessential scion of the American South, and Wordsworth, gathering spirit of the Lake District, might seem strange bedfellows. Where Wordsworth—English Romantic with a capital R—gracefully sublimates nature and often human nature, Smith is very much a poet of roughness, of wildness and broken edges. For Wordsworth, alas, the world is too much with us; for Smith, too much is never enough. There is much muchness in Smith’s work, jamming up violently against itself at seeming cross-purposes, and his poems echo the roiling excess, the full-blooded chaos of the world. Still, Vendler, not surprisingly, is on to something in suggesting this odd link across the centuries and across the seas. Smith’s poems invite us in through striking topics and animated scenes, yet they hold back facile meaning. Traces of the inexpressible, of the sublime, well up through this withdrawal of meaning, like rivers, meadows, and mountains for Wordsworth. In Wordsworth, such moments of near-transcendence evoke, famously, the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility. For Smith, tranquility is a non-starter; poetry, as life, is a string of spontaneous overflowing powerful feelings, raw, if not violent. Smith’s poetry, in its elemental force, keeps us in the moment. If a speaker offers an interpretation borne of tranquil reflection, this typically goes to disavow any ready larger meaning. See, for instance, the speaker’s (non)explanation in the collection’s title poem, “Looking Up”: “Some things in life have no good explanation” (74). What does it all mean? You tell me, and we’ll both know.
“February Fox” provides a moment of emotional intensity, wrapped in codes of the sublime, where the human need to produce meaning contrasts with the fluid intact presentness of animal being. The poem begins with a blaring litany of human-borne deaths stripped from area headlines “like poor women stabbed or shot / in Memphis, where TV hurls at us now / the awful, ordinary assaults we escape” (25). This is something Smith makes us witness throughout Looking Up: the world we’ve made is filled with lovelessness and unbelonging and banal brutality. We might wish to write these actions off as “animalistic,” but Smith’s poems remind us repeatedly that nonhuman animals often conduct themselves less savagely than their human foils.
Since he’s not the one stabbed, shot, or otherwise assaulted today, the poet prepares to make his way to work. Then the barrage of images of human savagery comes to a pause, a calm inspired by the vision of a gray fox emerging at dawn in the winter silence of Oxford, Mississippi. Out of the cold early quiet comes this sublime piece of nonhuman nature, like “the fragment of a dream”: “a gray fox glides past, / fur chrystalled in a razory sunlight / that glints, a halo on his rippling moves.” The fox fits seamlessly within his environs; unlike his human counterparts, the fox does not suffer consequences of self-consciousness, for he “asks no one what days mean, or why stars / raise our faces, or what we’d give to move / as he does.” Yet the fox is both exquisitely streamlined into his environment and also somehow above or beyond it. Like the sublime stars, the fox is also cloaked in language that suggests an otherworldly aura, a heightened presence: he “glides” past smoothly “rippling” and his fur is “chrystalled” by a glinting sunlight that ensconces his movements in a “halo.” The secret of this sublimity is that the fox is complete in himself. He doesn’t seek for meaning; he simply is. Humans, Smith suggests, are endless thinkers, meaning-making machines, for better and for worse. For “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” as some other poet once said (Hamlet 2.2.268-270).
Surreal and sublime are next of kin in Looking Up, two sides of the same coin of ineffability that Smith flips regularly. The surreal emerges through the uncanny dreamscape of “The Room,” where a clatter of faces “grotesque with joy” (42) gather again to celebrate memories of Smith’s father, killed in a car wreck in 1960. As soon as the poet affirms his certain grasp of reality (“I was sure I understood everything”), things veer to surreality, to the inexplicable: “Toward the end I saw // they were dead, too.” He’s party to some extranatural grouping of the undead. The deep commingling of love and death is evident through the “girl I had been in love with” whose “blood-red / mouth” bares teeth “brown as your shoes they brought me in a bag, gold / Masonic ring, a shirt with your smell.” For the poet, love threatens to die and rot, just as the father’s life is bleakly reduced to these final shabby relics, bagged up as the poet’s grim inheritance. From this stark visitation with the undead, this confrontation with the unknown and unknowable, the poet learns that “no life stayed pure, or saved.”
These flickering encounters with the ineffable, side-eye glimpses of the sublime, form the heart of the experience in Looking Up. Such uncanny moments lend the volume a sense of mystery in a mystical or near-mystical way. There’s a burgeoning feeling in these late poems that the inexplicable moments the poet encounters resemble what we talk about when we talk about spirituality. Or, the intensity of the strange sensations and unnameable instances evoked in Smith’s late verse calls out for some different order of language, and traditionally we’ve leaned on spiritual discourse to try to make sense of such inexpressible matters.
This pattern is something distinct from the set of poems in Looking Up with overt religious subjects. The collection, for instance, houses a few poems touching on Smith’s Baptist upbringing, such as “Golden Curls,” “A Personal Baptism,” and “A Tasteless Revelation.” Although Smith doesn’t seem to still share this faith, he doesn’t condemn those who practice it. Are these church-goers hypocritical? Sure, Smith suggests, but no more so than the rest of us. Organized religion, per these more or less good-humored poems, is one form of belonging, as implied in the closing line of “A Personal Baptism”: “What else is there to the story of belonging” (33)? The church is not without its flaws, but, at its best, presents a structure designed for mutual benefit based on communal value and protection against harm. Smith is tough-minded, but also open-hearted. Much in the way of Jesus, one hopes.
I’ve never thought of Smith as an especially spirit-guided poet, as opposed to, say, A. R. Ammons’ lustrous spirit-haunted verse or the wondrous patina of spirituality that illumines so much of Charles Wright’s poetry, such that we should duly anoint him Saint Charles of the Words. Smith has seemed far away from the explicit spiritual questing and questioning that enliven so many memorable poems by his loose contemporaries, including Mark Jarman, Andrew Hudgins, Kate Daniels, and the late work of David Bottoms. Smith has been very much a poet of the body, and the body for him has been very much grounded in this world. Yet in Looking Up, fragments of spiritual interest—holy moments, let’s say—emerge here and there, forging an insistent, startling, and powerful pattern. Hell, he’s even starting to experience revelations, or at least heat-stroke-induced hallucinations, as in “Fatigue”:
Today I power-washed the porch, sun boiled so once I had to lay flat-out. I swear in that blinding fuse of light the angels whipped around me like cloggers in a country bar. (92)
Don’t misunderstand: Smith remains an immaculate poet of the body at work in this world. Indeed, that swirling host of angels quickly transforms to the more nubile vision of a lanky “black-clad blonde” whispering sweet somethings into the prone speaker’s ear, and this spiritual experience concludes with a decidedly bodily affirmation:
More, more, I proclaim, lying on my back, wanting each angel going by, her radiant look a sure contract. I’ll be hard as the earth that holds me. (92)
Looking Up is filled with intimations of mortality. Smith’s latest collection reveals that, as the poet more and more recognizes his physical limits, he also begins to feel tugs of the spirit; as the body perishes, it heightens the need for some imperishable bliss. In “Black Ice,” set in the Baltimore winter, the older poet takes a tumble on an unseen patch of black ice, a fall that provokes a spiritual assay: “Half under my car, freezing, I started to pray” (43). In this humiliating position, unable to raise himself, he suffers a gnostic emptying of the ego: “After a while / I crawled to a bench, a perfect afternoon empty / as my heart.” This is one of several health scares recollected in the collection, including another fall while trying to climb a ladder (“Looking Up”) and a couple of diabetic seizures (“Seizure” and “Quail”), that cause the poet to “see how slippery the world was” (43). These falls demonstrate the fragility of his—and our—physical existence, the way the heart is fastened to a dying animal. We witness the tenuousness of this life, even or especially as we try our hardest to grip fast to it. Yet, can you really tread through life in such trepidation, always fearing that “the days are black in their mood” and that black ice, or worse, waits invisibly to trip you up? This is proceeding in bad faith. Instead, “Black Ice” seeks something beyond the physical, “a superior premise // under the invisible,” even as we may perceive it only through the physical, as through a glass darkly: “How can you believe what you can’t see?” Black ice is invisible in its way, but real enough. But so is, the poem suggests, the experience of faith, though spirituality is experienced bodily, through the senses, even painfully, “the way a nausea drools, then convulses you.” The poem’s point draws near to a sort of Christian existentialism: faith is impelled by the lone soul being dangled by a thin thread over a great abyss of abandonment and pain—ahead of the greater abyss of death—and one must be emptied to be filled. In “Black Ice,” this seems to be the answer to the fallen poet’s prayers. Not so comforting, perhaps, but all that remains.
The poet’s spiritual quest takes place in a tense and tenuous world, with a mean streak. The presumption that our staid everyday world is stable is an illusion. Per Smith, life’s a rough haul, and a commitment to meaning—to creating and living some value beyond mere egotism—not only often goes unrewarded, but also often gets punished. However, Smith suggests, the deeper, if not lasting, value is in the creation and the life itself. In this way, Smith’s poetic persona across the collection is a code hero, one who believes in love and belonging, who believes empathy transcends transactional quid-pro-quo ethics. The poet figure across this collection is one who uses people not after their desert, but much better, no matter how badly they’ve treated or might treat him. If this world offers a continuous feed of destructive violence, pain, and grief, it also creates a plethora of chances for constructive empathic action. If, in Looking Up, violence is a powerful motivating force, so is empathy. With all the strength we’ve got, love and empathy push back against death and violence.
“The Siamese,” one of several poems in the collection about former pets, twists together human and animal realms of experience and consciousness. The poet recalls a pair of Siamese cats, “two howlers, sleek as clouds” (18), from the early days of his marriage with Dee. Things were “idyllic” then, but “nothing stays the same.” One of the Siamese “left us, dying in her sleep, no explanation.” As noted, some things in life have no good explanation. Or, as Death deadpans in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), “No reason.” Things go badly also with the other Siamese, who “suffering nightmares, hissed / herself awake, stalked curtains, attacked me, then Dee.” The second Siamese’s descent into madness triggers a psychic jumpcut to the poet’s mother dressed in her “leopard coat, feline and fake, perfectly / licked to unfoul each blemish and chance / like offers.” The projected interconnections between the cats and the mother deepen and take on a bitter edge for the poet:
………………………………………………….Sound they made in their passion hangs, is awful, a tooth snapped in the mouth, but nothing to what I feel when I remember my mother’s lies, men she trailed, her debts, the scorn of screams from that pain-ridden believer. (18)
The former aloof allure and wildness of the Siamese are redoubled in the fierce resistance and mysterious beauty of the mother as she approaches the end of life: “Jesus will punish you, she spat, stiffening, / beauty in her bare, slow, mysterious breath.” The son, too, feels a parallel guilt. He tries to blot his remorse with drink for abandoning the troubled Siamese to an elderly caretaker and he now worries over similarly deserting his mother at the verge of the final threshold:
Mother, let me feed you, I said, try to eat. The same look on her face as those cats crossing a new threshold, the door closed. And, Jesus, that will to accept what’s coming. (19)
The poem’s crossing the threshold between animal and human consciousness creates a piquant, uncanny space that unlocks empathy in the midst of violence, physical or emotional. In Looking Up, so much in life is a question of will; so much isn’t. You control what you can control, until you can’t. The second Siamese and the mother display fearsome will, and this is admirable. Even as the will can’t overcome madness and it can’t overcome death, even as it accepts these blunt limits, still it continues to resist formidably. To borrow the final words of Squire Jöns from The Seventh Seal, they, too, stiffly accept their fate “but under protest.” Out of regard for this intense willfulness, the poet expresses his empathy as he tries to take care of his mother. As she feels abandoned, he extends to her a sense of love as belonging, something he failed before to do for the Siamese, but now embraces this karmic second chance.
Love, though it can be a heavy drag sometimes, is the mooring force that allows us to belong to and with others, for the time being, amid influences that would set us adrift or crush us. The anchoring dimension of love is literalized in “Flying in Sewanee” where the diabetic poet’s “blood sugar had plunged” to the extent that he believes he can fly (26). Mentally metamorphized into a giant heron, the poet flaps his arms and attempts to lift off the side of a fog-shrouded mountain in Sewanee, Tennessee, the writers’ mecca: “the deep offside of / the mountain called me like a waterfall / a child might tumble into.” Thankfully, Dee, wife of fifty-seven years, goes out and begins tugging his arm to anchor him, “her voice that shrill whistle of the red-wing / when she grips the marsh-grass flutter-top.” His love saves his life:
I can’t think of anything else to explain how often, over more than fifty years married, I have gone flying and she brought me back. Surely that is the proof, even if no one else saw her struggle to stay on the ground, of how love has kept us flying, up and down, up and down, body to body alive. For now. (26)
The final “For now” reminds us of the tenuousness of life, the utter fragility of being alive: death comes quickly, and for no reason. However, the closing sentiment strikes a further clarion tone that resonates through the collection. We should live and love deeply “For now,” existing as fully in the present as possible. Who knows? There might not be much after.
Looking Up also pays immense, intricate attention to the intimate lives of the animal world going on all around. What kind of animals? A partial listing includes birds, dogs, horses, turtles, armadillos, squirrels, lizards, bulls, snakes, butterflies, fish, etc. One could readily write an “animal studies” or “ecocriticism” scholarly article on Smith’s work. Sometimes the animal in question becomes a figure for evoking human love, as is the butterfly in “Monarch,” another extraordinary love poem for Dee. Even when the animal described is unkempt or off-putting, there’s still some sense of kinship established, some form of belonging enacted, such as the “ovals of buzzards” (6) in “Witness David”; or the skinned squirrels in “Dressing”; or the “leathery, skull-cap suits” (54) donned by armadillos in “Armadillo”; or the “gutted, dried-out corpse” (100) of a cottonmouth moccasin on the seventeenth fairway in “Memorial”; or the homely, lonely figure of the heron in “Yellow-Headed Night Heron”:
He wasn’t born good, or even much loved, this outcast tiptoeing our wood fence top, legs a dwarf midshipman’s seeking stillness his buzz-cut feather top knotted in wind as his needle-beak compasses and scans. Out in the road cars whizz. What can he want, his scruples leaving him on that last post? (55)
Smith offers us another interpenetration of animal with human experience. He does so not to blindly anthropomorphize the heron, but to illustrate a deeper link between human and nonhuman animals. For Smith, humans are not above and apart from other animals. We do not lord it over animals; instead, there is a surprising closeness between human and animal worlds, and often animals model behaviors for us. The yellow-headed night heron is an outcast, one in search of belonging. In fact, he “must have been up there with parents / who believed him the best they’d ever do” (55) and still they apparently abandoned him, as if giving him up for adoption, with no takers. The poem narrows to a further interspersing of animal experience with personal memory:
I mow over the skeletal anchovies crisped and soundless as terror he must have felt when the parents left, like my father who vanished one Sunday morning in May. (55)
We might have been wondering why the poet was drawn to this oddball bird. Now we know. The poet, too, has been likewise abandoned. He, too, has been an outcast, one in search of belonging. He knows the feeling. And so empathy wells across the page as across the yard as across species.
Surely the heron isn’t much to look at, “all / of him an ugly edge” and his “feet saddled / with big claws, a lump with flight wings / stuck in his back.” However, Louisiana, itself a damaged place, seems a perfect state for such an outcast: “maybe enough for Louisiana after all / to rise from thorns, poisoned fields, ponds / acid-dried, trees hacked for new suburbs.” The specter of ecological threat and ruin rises to haunt the landscapes of the Bayou State and may in part be responsible for the particularly abnormal, unhealthy state of the heron. The instinctual dynamic of mating has been disrupted, resulting in an arbitrary, almost unnatural coupling that produced such off-kilter offspring: “Where / is such a misfit to live but here? I imagine / such couplings must be outsiders, partners / stepping off, not our kind, legally invisibles.” Whereas the parents are “not our kind,” the poet forms an underlying kinship, an abiding empathy, with this gawky, frightened foundling. He and the heron are much of the same kind, and he’d like to offer the outcast some protection in his vulnerability, as he would for all “these small ones, gripped / just over the violent world we can’t explain.” The world fosters inexplicable, inexorable violence. We try to stop it, but can’t. We try to explain it, but can’t. There is nothing intelligent to say about such violence, except what the birds say. All there is to say about such violence, things like “Poo-tee-weet.” Or, in Smith’s telling, “They hang around, vanish. They don’t explain” (55). The heron, like the poem, once it is created, takes its unforced place as one of the elements of nature, to be encountered and prized by the passerby as much as any river, meadow, or mountain. The heron emerges organically and looms before the reader’s consciousness, hangs around, vanishes, without rational explication. The heron’s very otherness is what repels and draws us; we can empathize with him even, or especially, as he hovers aloof on the edge of our event horizon: lovable if unknowable, lovable because unknowable.
Looking Up includes a curious recurrence of “the gods” across a number of poems. As we’ve said above, there are burgeoning motions of spirituality, although the bulk of the references tends towards “the gods” in the classical sense rather than “God” in the monotheistic tradition. Witness, for example, the opening lines of “Grim Permissions”:
Sometimes the angels on our pond steam a particularly gold light, skidding electric sun through the aerating fountain, easy to think it’s a message meant to let us in on doings of the gods, like a roll call of permissions we’re granted for one day at least. (62)
It might be easy to think we can read a message explaining the doings of “the gods” in this sublime vision of gold light and mist rising from the pond, but it would be wrong, because such “vision isn’t something sustained very long.” We’re better off counting on our own devices for “such explanations as / wait among the tools and plants and hot air.” In “One or the Other,” the poet identifies “the gods” point-blank as sources of human pain and despair who act with “no reason” (69); “the gods” are melodramatically cast as an imaginary scapegoat for the human problem of evil:
those motherfuckers who like to steal a good skin and tear it slowly inch by inch, making their bets you can’t cause them to stop, not with fist, not with prayer, not with scream, not even with tears they love to drink up more than rotgut whiskey. (69)
The references to “the gods” accumulate through Looking Up, and this is no accident, even as “the gods” stand in for seemingly accidental episodes, often traumatic. As the repetitions pile up, the irony of attributing bad events to “the gods” begins to thin, unveiling stark matters of human responsibility. Referring to “the gods” becomes a way of asking, in the face of often terrible situations, “What in the world are you going to do?” For Smith, this question is not rhetorical. He means it. Faced with a seemingly inexplicable crisis, what in the world are you going to do? It’s your call. You are called on to make meaning out of this dreadful chaos. Each poem offers a provisional response, a pro tem claiming of this responsibility to make meaning and take action. Make no mistake: these are not didactic poems. Smith, being completely honest, notes that his responses to “the gods” are always questionable, as are ours. But we do know what’s right, more or less, in most cases, don’t we?
Consider, for instance, the ironically nostalgic “Christmas Memory.” One lovely snowy Christmas Day in Midlothian, Virginia, the poet weighs the option of getting his shotgun from the house and shooting to death a neighbor:
But I knew enough not to shoot a poor shadow, not to shoot in my neighborhood, not to be the kind of asshole who does what he wants because he can when the gods stop watching. (59)
Granted, the neighbor has poisoned the poet’s dog. Still, there’s an underlying ethical code at work in Smith’s late poetry. The recurrent notion of “the gods” is perhaps not unlike Stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius’ understanding of a kind of natural ethics: “The unjust person acts against the gods. For insofar as the nature of the universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other, with an eye toward mutual benefits based on true value and never for harm, anyone breaking nature’s will obviously acts against the oldest of gods” (Meditations 9.1.1). The recurrence of “the gods” in Looking Up illuminates the poet as code hero. Don’t do unto others what they might well do unto you, given half a chance: don’t “be / the kind of asshole who does what he wants / because he can when the gods stop watching.” We feel we know what the right thing to do is, most of the time. So why don’t we do the right thing, most of the time? That’s not on “the gods,” Smith suggests. That’s on us.
In “The Secret of Herd Travel,” Smith again intersperses human and animal conditions and intellectual-emotional states. This time the poet is in the company of his grandson as the two encounter the silent, powerful affect of nonhuman nature. Each morning, while they eat breakfast together, they watch a herd of deer graze in the field next to their yard “in the silver dew more like a dream than grass” (97). The herd is “Led by the big-antlered grandfather, fur stained / by age and new mud,” marking a parallel with the human grandfather who hopes to lead his grandson on a right path in his way. Cue death:
My grandson had seen them before, his moon-eyes settling on each, then tracking as if puzzled. He could count his fingers and toes, so maybe he understood the missing one, its small shape dark red on our road where living
only looked changeless. The boy asked me where dead ones went, who’d leaped over to eat with us all summer. (97)
Thus death enters the boy’s world, striating his burgeoning consciousness with questions. That the “missing one” is a small, young deer marks a further parallel with the human grandson, heightening his sense of vulnerability. At first, the boy wants to know the how of death, but this soon deepens to the big existential question of why: “After a while I asked him if he had more questions. / Why? He said. I could see he was thinking it over.” Humans think such things over, making meaning in our way. All animals die, but humans are animals that know we die, thereby splitting our psyches, creating dread of the future, which is death-bound, and regret for the past, which is lost time. That leaves the present, which is where nonhuman animals thrive. As man and boy ponder the how and why of life and death, the deer watch the humans “as if they knew an answer we did not, / nosing the grass delicious and endless.” The animals don’t overthink things; they embody the present, existing fully in themselves. We could learn a lot from animals, Smith suggests, existing purely in the moment like that.
Instead, however, we seem intent on damaging the wild habitat that supports animal life. Through the poem there are dark inklings of human threats to the nonhuman ecology. In addition to the young dead deer struck down as roadkill, the boy hopes to find some of the herd still in “the woods where some must be / hiding from trucks, saws, voices building houses,” and there is also the ominous sound of “Hammers tapped from shade, enough / to frighten a waking boy.” Human construction begets natural destruction. The boy can be described as “waking” in at least two senses: he has awakened to the existential reality of death and, more particularly, he has awakened to a sense of responsibility for the damages being wrought on this herd and its surrounding habitat through damaging human participation in this ecology. In frighteningly close terms, the boy apprehends the link between real estate development and natural decline.
Yet the herd is not all gone yet. If the heads are fewer, the remaining ones take on a fluid, dreamlike, mythic ethos:
Already the hooves flowing back over our road seemed bigger leaving, the heads fewer. The boy ate toast clotted with jelly. We washed in the sink, chins lifted, dripping. If we dream, or do not, hunger comes. So we eat. (97)
The grandfather and grandson, at the end, seem to have learned the secret of herd travel: a deep, perhaps primal sense of belonging that draws together disparate members into a single, flowing unity for the greater good. The old man and the boy keep it simple. A little toast with jelly, a quick wash in the sink. They don’t concern themselves with dreaming, or not dreaming; they won’t get self-conscious about mental states. Instead of overthinking things, as we humans tend to do, they’ll unthink things. If hunger comes, they eat. Just like the deer herd. Forget the future and the past. They embrace the present. For now.
Who could have expected such late blossom? Even for a poet as prolific and impressive as Smith over a fifty-year stretch, Looking Up makes for a remarkable outpouring in late light. These poems fo a dozen years show him—thankfully—not yet settled poetically, but still unsettled and unsettling. And this is a good thing for contemporary poetry. Dave Smith is still stretching out his hands, going places he—and we—maybe shouldn’t wish to go. Though he has long cultivated an inviting persona, Smith uses it to guide us to troubling, yet needful things. Looking Up reveals him to be very much still looking.