Matthew Buckley Smith. Dirge for an Imaginary World. San Jose, CA: Able Muse Press, 2012. 80 pp. $16.95, paper.
After the decades of foofaraw, after the histrionic wailing and the gnashing of teeth, let us be honest. American poetry is not, after all, dead. Yes, it contains a great deal of necrotic tissue in it, but a pulse persists. Our poetry remains vital not only in the work of our many distinguished elder statesmen, like Walcott and Wilbur, but also in the work of youngish and younger poets like Bill Coyle, Morri Creech, Stephen Kampa, Adam Kirsch, A.E. Stallings, Natasha Trethewey, Caki Wilkinson, and Greg Williamson. All of these poets are, at their best, astoundingly good, jaw-droppingly, heart-stoppingly good, and there are many more who are deserving of notice. And then, let us not forget that Claudia Emerson, Joseph Harrison, Mary Jo Salter, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Rosanna Warren, and Franz Wright, among others, are all, as of this writing, under sixty, and are all writing brilliantly. Yes, we live, after all, in an age of great bounty. In the midst of the riotous city, of the obstreperous hordes swarming the streets, the sumptuous banquet of good poetry has gone on, unperturbed, and we should be grateful.
Of course, for all the excellence, for all the wheat, there is a great deal more chaff, as is always the case, and, due to the proliferation of writing programs and journals, the evidence of that chaff is more apparent now than in ages past, is, in fact, to some degree institutionalized at this point. But the sins of bad writing are, more or less, the same as they ever were, and primary among them is the sin of pride, which is another name for certainty, which is another name for complacency. So many writers, who would mock the worst of the Victorians for thoughtlessly wrenching their every notion into blank verse, will themselves thoughtlessly allow their own notions to slouch into a free verse more accurately called “non-verse,” taking for granted that metrical poetry, or even more loosely formal poetry, is not the kind of thing one does anymore. Id est: bad poets are forever taking form for granted. As Pound said, “Meter must mean,” and that is true, whether one writes in a regular meter or in free verse. Indeed, the practitioners of non-verse are those who forget that, in Pound’s command to “Make it new,” the word, “it,” has an antecedent. Novelty is not the end of poetry.
But the best response to bad writing is silence, so let us shift our topic. Among the excellent youngish and younger poets of our time, one notices, in general, a tendency toward playfulness. This playfulness—a kind of tombstone-jumping irony in the manner Calvino ascribes to Cavalcanti—serves most often as a fake ID to allow great moral seriousness to sneak into the dance-club. It is an excellent technique, but one must acknowledge it is not the only technique. What our poetry has been missing for some time is a sterner voice, a severer vision, willing to risk being uncool, willing to risk the buffoonery of brooding in order to speak gravely of grave matters. Such a voice, such a vision does not forbid humor, but its humor is darker, heavier, bitterer than the lissome jokes and puns we more often encounter. Bill Coyle’s outstanding debut, The God of This World to His Prophet, moves in the direction of such a voice and such a vision, but we get the thing full-on in Matthew Buckley Smith’s debut collection, Dirge for an Imaginary World.
Smith’s book is stark. Its vision is, most often, severe in the manner of George Meredith’s masterpiece, Modern Love. Of course, there are also traces of Swift, of Baudelaire, of Housman, of Larkin. It is the kind of poetry written by a man of serious mind, refusing complacency, refusing the cuddly lies of comfort, and walking into the dark night’s storm, clear-eyed, in pursuit of the meaning of his existence. Carrie Jerrell, in her blurb, quite rightly notes the similarity between Smith’s poems and those of Thomas Hardy, as both poets trade in an austere and merciless beauty. Indeed, Smith is one of those rare poets, like Hardy, who can break your heart in all the ways you didn’t know you wanted it to be broken. Poem after poem says the things that we would say if we were more honest, and says those honest things the way we would say them if we were more artful. But, unlike Hardy, who could rely on a chilly pastoral mode to dramatize his characters’ inner suffering, Smith, being a poet of our own age, cannot turn to brumal heaths and beautifully drear landscapes but must, instead, show the heartbroken and lost of our own time as they are, wandering through city streets and suburban bars, lacking even the dignity of suffering picturesquely.
I miss believing that I’ll never die,
Or is it that there won’t be a tomorrow?
Both lines work out about the same: deny
The day you’ll have to pay back what you borrow.
It used to be I never went to bed
A second night with any girl I found.
No breakfast in those days—a smoke instead,
Then out the door before she came around.
Last night I passed a toppled garbage bin,
Its liner sagging with a rat’s remains.
He sank a little when I squinted in
And seemed embarrassed by his greedy pains.
And so much like a man, the way he sat
Still in his death, and so much like a rat.
This is devastating poetry, devastating. Smith refuses to indulge in idealizing his past, refuses to be transported by the sweet incense of memory into a transcendent and deathless realm, though he “miss[es]” the ability to do so. The speaker recognizes the appeal of that vision, but he cannot allow himself to indulge in it, because that vision is a lie. Instead, the poem, which is the book’s first, opens by bluntly asserting the speaker’s idealism has passed, and by subtly asserting that this speaker is, in consequence, aware of his own mortality, of his confinement within the prison of Time. How many poets luxuriate in the plush sensuality of their pasts, never reaching the detachment or self-awareness Smith reaches in his first line! How many poets wrap themselves in their idealism like a Snuggy™! Not Smith: the sonnet suggests that the big fun of youth, the trysts and the self-destructive habits, the pursuit of lubricious escape worshiped by our culture, is akin to the rat feeding on filth.
Why is the rat in the dumpster dead? If we take the entire image of the rat as functionally metaphorical, we find the dumpster is the vehicle for Time, a grim enough vision, but we also find that the dead rat is the figure for the speaker, suggestive of the spiritual death accompanying such a hedonistic past. But the poem is not so easy. The simile of the couplet acknowledges the comparison’s failure: the speaker is not actually dead like the rat; rather, the speaker must go on living, having endured the death of idealism, the death of which disallows the certain correlation of one thing with another. Indeed, the simile must fail, as correspondences fail, if we are to believe Rimbaud’s revelations leading up to his famous Le musique savant manque à notre désir. Ah, the speaker cannot even accept the cold comfort of ultimate despair, which would come with accepting that he himself is adequately represented by the dead rat. This is honesty. This is the “little ease” described by Camus in The Fall, that device of torture in which one, being enclosed, can neither stand up straight nor sit entirely down, and in which one must forever contort one’s self into a different state of discomfort. The poem refuses idealism, and it refuses despair. The poem, at last, refuses certainty, because certainty is, for Smith, the great lie. In fact, we might say that certainty itself is the “imaginary world” of the book’s title. Poem after poem strips away the veneer of certainty and strives to see things as they are. Of course, such a seeing is, the book reminds us, impossible, and this impossibility is at the book’s thematic core.
But, whenever poetry’s involved, a discussion of theme must lead to a discussion of style. We might begin by saying that Dirge for an Imaginary World contains no free verse, that it contains a wide variety of forms, including sonnets; ballad stanzas; heroic couplets; sestets; rhymed quatrains in trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter; poems in mixed meters; blank verse; Sapphics; hemistichs; et cetera. The variety of forms within the book, however, is not a sign of Smith’s formal mastery; what is a sign of Smith’s formal mastery is that each form means, that each poem’s form significantly interacts with its content. How? Most often, as the poem’s content strips away the lies of certainty, as the content rubbles the foundations of each imaginary world, the form, ironically, is building a new imaginary world, a new shape, a new myth, with the perfection of the form’s exactitudes corresponding to the perfection of the lie that is certainty. In short, Smith’s forms function by illustrating the subjective self’s inability to transcend itself or enter into things as they are, the inability of the I to be certain, even of uncertainty. If the book is a “dirge,” a formal work of music, it is a work of art, an imaginary world, lamenting the passing of another imaginary world, and Smith’s is the vision that refuses to forget it is a vision, that scrutinizes its seeing even as it sees, that mistrusts itself as much as it mistrusts the idealism it sees through.
For complacent readers, the appearance of traditional forms may signal some kind of old-fashioned stuffiness, a square-ness, a lack of familiarity with “what’s going on” in poetry. Nonsense. Smith’s poems do what good poems do with forms: they make their forms integral. If the poems are not faddish, or en vogue, it is only because good poetry is rarely faddish, or en vogue; it is always difficult, because it is always faithful to life, and the world, especially in our time, has little use for difficulty or fidelity, easy and promiscuous entertainments being constantly available. Happily, good readers have already recognized Smith’s achievements. Here is his “Nowhere,” which Kevin Young selected for the Best American Poetry 2011:
i.m. Steve Sigur
The sprinkler system wakes up on the hour,
Casting its vacant arcs across the lawn.
All night its clockwork tends to every flower
Bedded down here to bury roots and spawn,
While nowhere in particular my friend,
Who just last week lay mumbling on a cot,
Is dead, is nothing time or work can mend,
Though his machinery remains to rot
As I walk late at night across a campus
Hundreds of miles away, which is to say
As near to him as anywhere, and tempus
Fugit no less irreparabile
From me than from the blossoms here and there
Who do not know their lot, and do not care.
You’ll note this poem includes a glance at the famous passage from the Georgica of Vergil: Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore, or, “But it flees in the meanwhile; time flees irretrievably, while we wander in circles, captive in our love of the singular.” The realization, reached through this allusion, is brutal. For all our self-knowledge, we come to the same end as the “blossoms” and the people who don’t pursue knowledge and just don’t care. The noble Roman and the barbarian die the same death. This is a particularly brutal realization for writer-types, who want to think that we are better off for all our learning, for our reading Vergil, for our studying Latin, for our writing whatever it is we write. Perhaps we are, but Smith refuses to congratulate himself for reading poetry, or for writing poetry. The poem can’t settle for the certainty, so rampant in the poetry world, that everyone should read poetry, and should write poetry, and that poetry makes us better people, as if browsing a book of sonnets could wash us clean of sin. Is it really any solace to Vergil to know that a writer, 2000 years later, is quoting a fragment of a work few read, even fewer in its own language? Did it change his fate, spare his suffering, that he was the greatest poet of the world’s greatest empire? Probably not. Vergil, the man, is dead, though his gifts remain.
As for that, there is quite a bit in Dirge for an Imaginary World that has a chance to remain, if not in the political treatises so often being passed off as anthologies these days, at least in the hearts of its readers. Poems like “The Ascetic Speaks of Heaven,” “Meaning,” “A Lesson,” “A Pledge,” “Juglans Nigra,” “Late Aubade,” “At the Spring Ballet Exams,” and, my personal favorite, “Diary,” are nearly perfect, and one has no sooner read them than one seems, almost, to have memorized them. Smith’s poems, at their best, are rich in the complexity that rewards careful and repeated reading, but they are also pleasurable, available, at least in part, on the first read. They are poems of what Allen Tate called “knowledge carried to the heart,” poems written with the entirety of the human apparatus, and, while the poems’ distinctly grave vision and voice, coupled with their dexterous technique, may initially seem abrasive in their divergence from the more familiar and jubilant manner, they should earn Smith a place at the banquet with our best young poets, where, amid the brilliance and headiness, the need will arise, at the end of the night, for a sober, steady-handed poet to drive everyone home.