Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling


 Poetry Review    



By R.T. Smith
Louisiana State University Press, 2003
Hardcover, $22.95 (64 pages)
ISBN: 0-8071-2897-X

Brightwood, R.T. Smith’s eighth book of poetry, continues his tradition of poetic excellence steeped in the musicality and regionalism of his native southland.  While the locales and subject matter of the poems could be easily labeled as “southern,” what refuses to be categorized is Smith’s effortless use of sound and language to portray the status of the human condition. 

The title poem is an excellent illustration of the attention to tactile details interwoven with precise sonic complexities that serve to ground all of Smith’s poems, while at the same giving them and their subject a density that pays homage to reality and experience. 

          The saw blade will go slowly
          into the limb’s center where sap
          has ambered the timber, whether
          it be holly, fir or cedar, and maple’s
grain is the gift of candor
filled with cambered light
and the patience of a bird-knit

In this first sentence alone the tension and contrast created between the word choice and musicality of the individual lines and line-breaks mirrors perfectly the loving construction of the fiddle that is the subject matter of the poem.  

          …You rasp and sand
for the curve of muscle, the feel
of bone, then smoke and varnish
for the whiskey sheen… 

This same painstaking construction is obvious in each of Smith’s poem and becomes a metaphor not only for life, but for his writing as well. 

This mixing of mediums, the mundane and ethereal, is a hallmark of Smith’s poems as he moves from form to form and from subject to subject.  In this same way the poem “Downy,” a simple description of a bird feeder and woodpecker, takes on near mythic proportions: 

…the black seeds
of his eyes quick with trepidation,
as if he almost knows
his savoring the treat instead
of pecking the eave’s cedar
for insects invites hungrier
creature to see him
aptly graphed, his tweed wings
mapped on the skeletal mesh
so predators can detect him,
as if, in fact he’s testing the world’s
sleepy mercy, as he crawls,
back-lit in blue, his scarlet skull
cap offering on the grid
a target some hunters—be they
hawk or human—might in quiet
appreciation call a fatal gift.
The final two lines move the poem beyond a simple lyrical description and into the bittersweet realm of human experience, a realm all too familiar to Smith’s work.
The forms the poems take are as varied as the author’s own artistic endeavors and actual subject matter.  In the poem titled “Directly,” Smith offers the reader a southern etymological lesson on the same word:
“I’ll get to it directly,” she’d say, meaning
soon, meaning, when I can, meaning, not
yet, be patient, the world don’t turn upon
your every need and whim…
It is in these voiced recollections, that blur the lines between lyric, dramatic and narrative poetry, that Smith seems perhaps most comfortable.
          …Or “the dogs
          will be back home directly, I reckon,”
          “the preacher will be finished,” “your daddy
          will see to you,” supper will be laid out”—
          all “directly,” which never meant the straight
          line between two surveyor’s points or
          an arrow’s flight, but rather, by the curve,
          the indirect, the arc of life and breath…

And that is where the power of this brand of poetry, poems like “Rimfire, Windage, the Jimmy Nichols Breath,” “Voices, Traces, the Whip-poor-will’s Plea,” and “Queen City, Skins,” lies: in the roundabout journey of experience, for both the poet and the reader. 


William Ashley Johnson
Southern Scribe Reviews

© 2004, Southern Scribe Reviews, All Rights Reserved