That’s How It Is
Stubborn Mule Press
Reviewer: David E. Poston
Jared Smith’s new collection, That’s How It Is, is prefaced by a passage from Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge which describes how poetry is not simply expressed feelings, but the product of experience internalized over time. Smith’s career now encompasses fourteen volumes of poetry, including Collected Poems 1971-2011, and his latest volume reflects maturity of perspective and fluent mastery of line and image.
Poem after poem presents variations on the same contrasting images: images of what he calls “the grid” and images of the unquantifiable natural world beyond it. His understanding of the grid – cities, highways, factories, university, technology, data points, and talking points – comes from his work experience in research, government, and education. It is clear from these poems where Smith’s sympathies lie. Disillusioned with media, university, politicians, and corporations, he disdains what he calls “the playboy one percent” for the working men and women whom he repeatedly praises for building and maintaining this country.
These poems celebrate Colorado trout streams and the wilderness “from the frozen fields of Montana to the kiln of Arizona.” They are windswept, starlit, and pointing toward the vast and timeless universe beyond the stars. The repetition of imagery and tight focus on recurrent themes are leavened by variety in tone and setting. Along with expansive poems such as the title poem, there are several brief and touching love poems, poems celebrating the West, a humorous poem about the microbes teeming inside us all, and wryly empathetic character studies.
In “The Salt Marshes,” the narrator describes leaving the town and going out into the wild.
Beyond the doctor’s offices, real estate brokers, greasy diners
beyond the houses, there were the salt marshes themselves
shifting back and forth …
He asserts that the salt marsh has a soul of its own, ending the poem with the following lines:
This was separate from where I live, of course, but it was there
contained within the ribcage of a vessel that knew the night
One of the most appealing aspects of these poems is how Smith praises honest work, whether it be clearing tables in a diner, driving a herd, or selling insurance. The collection’s final poem, “This the American Dream, and What of Joe,” is an elegy for both the dream and the man:
Big Joe hauls the groceries in
from the backseat of a beat-up Dodge each week
with never one sick week in his life, but
he sits at a desk six days of seven turning numbers
forty years after Romantic Poetry at Harvard
and teaching Linguistics at Charlotte and UIC
and he remembers the phyla of each green flower
he sees in his memory as he walks the fields
in memory it is getting harder to breathe and
he stops to catch his breath again and again
with each week he is immortal until he dies.
The title poem details the humble moments of ordinary people doing what they must every day. “Just a Fistful of Change” presents the narrator’s daily behavior as a compelling microcosm. “Inside the Glass Front Doors” employs a descriptive method from the perspective of a golden retriever sprawled in the back of a café, observing people as they come and go. In each poem, the poet uses vivid details to present perspective on what he values most.
In “Somewhere in the Mountains of America,” the poet/narrator reflects on his place in the world:
I call home the subways of New York
and the graffiti covered abandoned stations …
I call home the Petri dishes of laboratories
where men and women wear white coats
and for the price of a parking ticket men work …
I am merely a fisherman
here in America …
and I’m wanting to take home something
… of the sun
settling beyond the mountains I see only in silhouette,
yet which will test the strength of my arms, America,
and will fit into the creel I carry on my belt
America and I sigh looking up into the stars above.
Because this collection treats the fears and frustrations of the present moment, the specter of Donald Trump arose for this reader (perhaps that came from reviewing the book against the backdrop of impeachment hearings, though “Something Dark Beyond Words” was included in Beatlick Press’s Trumped Anthology). That said, Jared Smith points us toward perspectives that are both timeless and ultimately reassuring. Powerful forces were exploiting this country’s people and natural resources before Donald Trump, and they will continue doing so after he is gone. Smith takes a longer view, and he demonstrates something Donald Trump clearly lacks: a deep empathy for the people who elected Trump. Smith understands their history, their complaints, and their monsters.
That empathy, along with sorely needed words of reassurance, is found in passages such as this one from “Like the Sun Over Primeval Earth”:
I know it is the little things unnoticed that go on,
that get passed from one generation to another, one
Harriet Tubman, one Martin Luther King, one Kennedy
one Gandhi, one starving boy not exposed to media but
stretched out upon the mountains, draped beneath the cosmos,
cold and dying but reaching out toward that greater source
of life, that sun that breathes life into our souls across darkness
that makes a difference across the raft of generations, that
builds justice beyond the understanding of tired men
and is justice that brings peace to those we never know.
An early poem in the book, “An American Worker Finding Justice,” ends with these words that address the reader directly:
And tonight as I stand here before the sunset
and its rays suffuse me and I stand beneath stars
I am filled with a peace I do not understand
and you call this justice, for it is what we share.
This reader puzzled over what justice we shared, but the poems that followed pointed to the hardworking men and women described in the title poem and others, to heartfelt conversations in “In a Street Café” and “The Tombstones That Are Tuning Forks,” to life beyond “the cement and steel cells we live in.” Peace and justice may lie beyond our understanding, but we strive toward them, and Smith helps points the way.
In “Taking What the West Winds Spawn,” he writes about
preparing this evening to drive across the country
… to say in poetry what the world is like one election to the next
when men of little mind or words, and those of greater,
have little to say …
These poems say what matters and remind us what will endure.