Reviewer: Richard Allen Taylor
This is how it’s done. This is how a poet takes situations and events—some ordinary, some not so ordinary—and renders them into extraordinary art. This is how prize-winning poet Mark Smith-Soto drills deep into the emotional core of things, how he leaves us with poems that have no fat, no fluff, just meat and bone and sinew.
In the opening poem, “Do I Stink?” the narrator, a student employed for the summer as a lab technician, works alongside Roscoe, an alcoholic poet described as “a drunken boat pitching down the corridors”:
The abundant tension in this poem comes from the morally ambiguous situation between the characters and the stake that each of them has in the status quo. Roscoe wants to hide his alcohol problem from the employer. He wants to keep his job. The student wants to get along. He cares about Roscoe and keeps feeding him the little white lie (“Can’t smell a thing”) to help him maintain his dignity, perhaps unaware that he is, in today’s parlance, “enabling” Roscoe’s addiction. The student, unlike Roscoe, has little to lose. The poem ends as the student goes off to school and Roscoe is fired.
Smith-Soto divides Time Pieces into five sections, with artfully chosen section titles that relate to time on both literal and metaphorical levels. The first section, for example, is titled “Life Sentences,” and yes, the sentences in the poems are about life, but it is also true that the featured characters in these poems seem somehow condemned to carry one burden or another forever. Roscoe’s burden is alcohol addiction. Others are damaged by war, poverty, homelessness, imprisonment, or some other load they can’t seem to put down. The author paints these portraits with compassion that is bound to rub off on the reader, but without sloshing into sentimentality.
“In the Women’s Prison, San José, Costa Rica: Doll Making Self-Esteem Workshop” recounts the story of the narrator’s visit to a prison where the inmates are allowed to keep their small children with them. “At three, their children are sent away, the matron/ explains—it may be years before they see them again.” The women notice the man’s camera poking from his jacket, and he senses that the women want him to take pictures.
…they primp up the kids
I have them now, double prints, one to send back
As remarkable as what is said in this poem is what is not said. We don’t quite know why the narrator was visiting the prison, or what crimes the inmates might have committed, or what stories each of them might have told. While any of those factors might have showed up in earlier drafts or led to other poems, the author chose to write about the impulse toward an act of kindness, and how it affected him and helped others. As one of my instructors, the distinguished poet James McKean, is fond of saying, “What’s the real story? Write about that.”
In the section entitled “Still Time,” another title with several possible meanings, the author moves away from poems about the misfortunes of others to more personal, introspective, and meditative poems. In “Still, Life” (what a difference a comma makes), the narrator finds a lily broken high up the stalk:
Snipped much, much too soon, the lily
broken at the neck, not much stem…
Why not give the thing a chance and see
Well, perhaps the shift in themes is not as radical as it first appeared. Who among us has not been snipped too soon, and wanted a chance to bloom?
Smith-Soto’s ability to strike the heart with such plain arrows is something to behold. In “Present” (again note the fidelity to the theme of “time pieces”), the author waits in a coffee shop for a friend who is late—an hour and a half late. He notices his surroundings: clouds, telephone poles, youngsters smoking outside, the noise of “chatter and clatter” inside the shop. “Waiting for you is full of everything except you.// And for this gift, at least, I must thank you:/ this moment so completely mine.”
Many of the poems in this collection are about home and family. “Casa” describes a dream that conjures up the author’s childhood home in Costa Rica, with its “tiles gaining deep red/ along the scalloped roof.” Memories of mother, father, and abuelita (paternal grandmother) are here, too.
One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Un Beso,”a childhood memory of Flora, a teenaged servant girl who left the household to return to her native Guanacaste. She “hated// to leave me without one last adios/ at the barred window/ … and blew me un besito—/ or no, wait, wasn’t it that she somehow managed/ to…rise/ way on tiptoe to give me a buss on the lips// right through the bars, the first kiss I ever got/ that really mattered….”
Thanks to Smith-Soto, I now have a new goal: not to write about my first kiss, but rather the first one that really mattered.