Toward Paradox: The Wisdom of Jared Smith by John Amen
Striving to capture the United States’ broad geographic, cultural, ethnic, and colloquial vistas, Jared Smith’s literary DNA includes Whitman’s democratic vision and frontier Romanticism. Also apparent are the longstanding legacies of Emerson and Thoreau—their rebellious Transcendentalism and defiant individuality. Toward the end of the epic title piece from his 2005 collection, Lake Michigan and Other Poems, Smith writes:
I mean, this thing is big.
It brought the steel mills to the heartland.
You could see the train cars pulled up by the steel mills
waiting for the men inside to finish pounding out long ribbons of steel into bands…
Smith transmutes and expands these sources, drawing inspiration from rural and urban environments, the indomitability of nature, and the perennial state of human suffering. In addition, coming of age during the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War, Smith’s voice is at least partly shaped by the realities of contemporary socioeconomic and political tensions, the digital age, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. In “Seven Minutes before the Bombs Drop,” also from Lake Michigan, he offers:
Seven minutes before the bombs drop
we are crying, running, our bladders filled,
our muscles quickening as never before in Kansas
and we thump our open hands down on throbbing metal fuselage.
Smith ventures into apocalyptic domains with compressed language that conjures America’s obsession with “progress” and a collective alienation from nature. The 21st century has transported readers beyond “Kansas” and the innocence of “no place like home” to a Dantean circle where “fuselage throbs,” burning “our open hands.” Smith successfully yokes the sensory and the associative (Oz, post-Oz; Eden, dystopia). Describing the West’s longstanding patriarchal paradigm, he adds, “Testosterone may be a great thing, but it does not last without love.”
Lake Michigan marked the beginning of a prolific trajectory, with each subsequent collection notably mining new thematic and stylistic territory. The monumental Collected Poems: 1971-2011, released by New York Quarterly Books in 2012, is a remarkable representation of Smith’s work. Ranging from early and previously unpublished poems to pieces from Grassroots (2010), the book ends with the short but illuminating statement, “Seeking a Transrational Contemporary Postmodernism,” which concludes:
…each generation lays out its own broad expanse of artistic endeavor so that the new generation can draw the threads tight and keep at least a fringe expanding into the unknowable.
What’s inherited—the work of the predecessors—is an origin, a point by which to secure bearings, from which “the new generation” then ventures into the unknown and “unknowable.” The “artistic endeavor” is no less than a sustained engagement with Mystery in the absolutist sense. It’s this engagement— a Zenic cum gnostic curiosity informed by the traditional canon as well as those more peripheral works that resonate and catalyze in uniquely personal ways —that leads, paradoxically, to a deep and “transrational” sense of clarity: the poetic process tantamount to an act of alchemy.
Smith has internalized the chief Western movements, including an appreciation for aesthetic continuity, as sought and promulgated by Pound and Eliot, and the pervasive sense of isolation and existential dissonance, as normalized by Beckett, Merwin circa The Lice, and Donald Barthelme. Smith is a socio-aesthetically Progressive poet with the sensibilities of both a Romantic and a Realist. He often displays an idealism, an affection for such atavistic qualities as purity and innocence—the prelapsarian condition—but also views head-on the destructive tendencies that exist within our individual and collective psyches.
More recently, Smith released the mystical To the Dark Angels (2015). The opening poem, “Shivering Between Beings,” includes the following lines:
There is a web between
what we build and the ephemeral
tight as a seine net
as sanity itself
Smith explores the inseparability of spirit and flesh, space and terra firma, reflecting the impact of such philosophic poets as Milton, John Donne, and Blake. With some poems, he utilizes more direct and complexly limpid lines. In “This Woman to the Dark Angels,” for example, he tonally references Auden’s “Unknown Citizen” and Yeats’s “The Second Coming”:
The woman who last lived in my house
receives postcards from the institutions,
advising her what to buy and what to wear
now that the dead are lost in our computers.
And yet, this is unmistakably Smith, a signature riff on the fleeting nature of identity and the consumptive role of technology in contemporary life. The last line offers a phantasmagoric take on the image of a grave, the digital now the cemetery in which souls are “lost” and rendered untraceable. Lives are reduced to commercialism and data, the afterlife an anonymous electronic impulse flickering inside an ever-aging machine.
Smith’s latest release, This Town: Poems of Correspondence (Liquid Light Press, 2017), includes poems by Smith and Kyle Laws, editor and publisher of Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press. Rather than a collaborative work, per se, the poems operate as a dialogue between two poets; each piece furthers a thematic discussion and poetic exploration re “place.” The book opens with Smith’s “How Do You Look at this Space?”
Growing older I write colder in fire,
more to lose and therefore words are golden
fleece, are the sacred ark of the covenant,
the vessel of the blood which is eternal life…
Smith reflects upon the process of “growing older,” his voice faintly reminiscent of John of the Cross: the poem a psychic offering, a sacrifice of certitude, “words” serving as a gateway into “eternal life.” In this way, the book opens with a broad invocation: place as fixed locale and indeterminate (alchemical) process. Smith accentuates not only the ephemerality of identity but also the transience of knowledge. Knowing is temporary and dependent on context. Smith is Progressive not only in the socio-aesthetic sense, as discussed above, but also spiritually, with each understanding leading to a subsequent understanding and so forth. The quester is engaged in an organic and perhaps endless process of shedding relativistic illusions, which may eventually offer what might be regarded as wisdom.
The collection’s intriguing title poem is by Laws. She opens: “This town lives in a snapshot from a box camera.” Immediately the reader encounters the piece as narrative in real-time and a meta-study. In addition, because a title poem tends to prompt interpretative implications for the entire collection in which it appears, this poem serves much as a metonymic template, both stabilizing and destabilizing the book, thematically and linguistically.
The poem continues: “Its name is Town. But who lives in a town called Town?” Laws offers a humorous take on the impenetrability of metaphor, prompting a reader to recall Stevens’s sympathetic “The Motive for Metaphor.” The second stanza introduces “A woman in a red house….” The speaker offers, “No one paints a house red.” The poem ends: “There is confidence in a woman who would live / in a red house. A confidence you want for yourself. / A Language you want to learn to speak.” Laws segues from the almost absurdist depiction of the red house to the more haunting image of the seemingly solitary woman who lives in the house “on a bluff over the sea.” The reader is immediately curious about the woman, who is both sirenic and ethereally asexual, an archetypal reference to western mythology as well as a primitivistic stick figure disconnected from any recognizable matrix. As the narrator suggests, a desire (probably unappeasable) rises to understand the scene, this “confidence,” this “language.” Laws succeeds at offering a playful commentary on language and, like Smith, synonymizes place with Mystery. Place is presented, again, as process.
Place is further explored: historically/narratively (Laws, “The Depression in Town”), mythically (Smith, “That Night in ’41”), through distinct portraiture (Smith, “The Owner of Windows”), through confessional/first-person persona (Laws, “Demanding for a Dancer to Keep in Shape in Town”), through short-form reminiscent of imagistic haiku (Laws, “A Dove in Town”), and through the obliquely eulogistic (Smith, “Windows”). The book concludes with Laws’s “Dancing in Atlantic City,” which reads much like an ekphrastic response to an Edward Hopper painting, and the voice of which would certainly be celebrated by Williams as resonantly American:
The dancers’ hotel down the street from Steel Pier
has transoms over the doors, a way for cool to get in,
create a cross breeze for windows open onto the narrow stretch
Smith’s “correspondence” with Kyle Laws is a significant addition to his oeuvre. While both poets draw narratives and imagery from the collective American story, celebrating resiliency while lamenting a world burdened by the pitfalls of capitalism, dissociation, and apathy, their differences serve to highlight their distinct approaches: Laws, to use a photographic analogy, often magnifies the micro as an origin point, prompting the reader to interpretively pan toward the macro. Smith, on the other hand, frequently works with wide lens, enrolling the reader with thematic and imagistic panoramas, before zooming in on key particulars. In either case, internal and external merge, as do micro and macro, each becoming a mirror and metaphor for the other.
Throughout his career, Jared Smith has registered the shifting currents of American thought and experience, exploring how language relates to and complements the evolution of mind, body, nation, and globe. He has grown, with his own work and his work with Kyle Laws, increasingly attentive to paradoxical nuances, striving to reconcile distance and immersion, hope and nihilism, the personal and the transcendent. Whatever his form or content, Smith continues to share eloquent reports on humanity’s ever-sprawling shadow, ever-bounding enlightenment.
 See Smith’s spoken-word recording of the same name, released in the same year (2005), including the following tracks: “Human Genome Project,” http://www.jaredsmith.info/mp3/human_genome1.mp3 and “Father,” http://www.jaredsmith.info/mp3/father2.mp3. Note the accompanying music composed and performed by David Michael Jackson and Andy Derryberry.
John Amen is the author of four collections of poetry; most recently, strange theater (New York Quarterly Books), a finalist for the 2016 Brockman-Campbell Award. He is co-author, with Daniel Y. Harris, of The New Arcana. His latest collection, Illusion of an Overwhelm, will be released by NYQ in Spring 2017. His poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in journals nationally and internationally, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine (www.thepedestalmagazine.com).