May 012012

I first heard Jordan Smith read poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1980 (or thereabouts) when we were both students in the MFA program. He was one of the poetry stars, at that time writing a series of poems on historical themes — yes, they were that striking, I still remember them (when I don’t remember much else). He went on to teach at Union College in Schenectady, win fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and publish six books of poetry including An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns (Princeton University Press) and Lucky Seven (Wesleyan University Press). His newest book, just out, is The Light in the Film  (University of Tampa Press).  It’s an immense pleasure to publish on these pages five new poems by Jordan Smith — beautiful dense poems that jam words and thoughts and quotations together, halt and reverse the vectors of meaning, and exude a light autumnal air of loss and fatality wrapped now and then in a sly bit of humor.

……The cemetery deed from the Twenties
Was filed neatly with my father’s will, signed
By his father’s father. I go to prepare a place,
The pastor read. Her black coat swirled. Dirt
In a wedge on my thumb. No frost on the flowers yet,
The caretaker said, though it’s so late. I shook
His hand. Come back, he said, now that you’ve been.

The photo of Jordan and Malie Smith above was taken by Evan Smith.



A Poster of Steve Earle in Lerwick
— for Hugh Jenkins

In a grocery store window. The rain drives straight down
The glass, and no one’s on the glazed stone streets.  I buy
A couple of sweaters I couldn’t get anywhere else,
And a meal I could, and in the Shetland Times Bookstore
A Penguin edition of a saga about the earls of places like this.
It was brutal for years, the croft families scraping potatoes
Or barley from a little storm-raked soil, the men gone for months
In the sixareens for the offshore fishing, then salting
The catch to pay the laird his tax on a house that wasn’t theirs
In perpetuity and by divine right a bailiff enforced, so of course
It’s beautiful, this place people fled so as not to wreck themselves
In labor, and to sing of it you’d need a voice that calls
Us home, all of us, and not like sheep at shearing time, and not
To dwell on a cliff edge that was a mountain once, an earth
That was an earth, before history’s mantra of theft took another
Turn, and left us well enough alone, a tuft of wool on a stone fence.



Reading Another Swedish Mystery
One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun…
                        — Tomas Transtromer, After a Death

We can go on skis. The body is always a little further
Than the snow, wandering a little further than sight. The snow
Is a cliff’s edge, the sound of skis a stalking. The detective
Drives a fine car, a necessary car though the suburbs,
Through the security of the state. He knows what we were promised,
How little we understand, how we undervalue it. He knows
Too little, too little for now. And somewhere, don’t ask yet,
The killer watches a dvd, or perhaps records one, a kind
Of documentarian. Is it cause or effect; is it ritual or enactment?
A grouse drums. The detective drums on his steering wheel.
In the intervals, consciousness seeks its level. Plumb and centered,
The man with the knife clicks Record.



Mr. Berryman in Ireland

The pictures in that Time-Life photo shoot,
Serious, kindly listening in the pub, the wild
Love of it, gestures rendering reason moot,
Embraces, his daughter helped through the stile
In the sheep fence and over wood and stone,
Such self-approving joy. For which, atone,

Atone. In the ruined chapel on Inish More
I built a little cairn upon the altar
As others had, as if I’d no more quarrels
With god or stone or self, as if I’d faltered
Happily into repentance, caught in the cant
Of going in fear of getting what I want.

The worst, he said, is the best gift.
On the Galway train, I want this calm of post-
Post-confessional, post-sabbatical thrift
Of heart, a solitary pint, a toast
To no one much. He interrupts. His songs,
Unquiet, grave brief lives. Art’s long.



On the Suicides at the NY/Canada Border

Yes, they step in the same river twice.
They present their bad passports, their reasons, their distracted evasions.
No, they will not be staying long, they tell the customs agents.
There are a thousand islands where they might reconsider,
Some with ruined castles, some with cabins that might have cramped Thoreau.
They stumble at the questions about age and destination. They swear allegiance
Too easily to our anger and our pity; they profess to honor
The deserters from the unjust war. They’ve had enough of fighting.
They imagine a city of bistros, accordions, tables on the sidewalks,
But it is under snow. They are safe. No tourist will mistake them for a compatriot.
In the bar, the old violinist plays a song that’s not sad enough,
And they share his panic as the notes fall off pitch. His fingers are stiff;
They share his suffering. They forgive his dissonance.
They forgive the fog, the geese that pass so loudly overhead.
They are in a position to forgive all imperfection, all transience, to forgive even us,
Burdened with our snapshots and souvenirs, who will not join them,
Not yet, at the café of good intentions and unmeant consequences
Where they have fallen—is it sleep?—into and despite of our sorrow.



The Burial of the Dead

The caretaker said there were five places left
In the family plot. My wife and I traded glances:
That’s one problem solved for our heirs and assignees.
A few minutes later I was kneeling, dirt caught
On my jacket sleeve and watchband as I placed
The urns, my mother’s, my father’s, in one grave.
It was windy now; October. The pastor read
Her sure and certain. What more could there be?
What solemn music? In high school band I played
William Byrd’s The Burial of the Dead. Sonorous,
And sad, and simple and tricky to make it so, not
Just the usual baroque complications.  The drive
From the interstate was all uphill on smaller
And smaller roads. My youngest son put a flower
On the grave; no one told him to. He knew.
The strife is o’er, the battle won. On every side,
Millers, Launts, Chamberlains, St. Johns. Kin.
No one told me to feel at home or offered a hand.
Not yet. The cemetery deed from the Twenties
Was filed neatly with my father’s will, signed
By his father’s father. I go to prepare a place,
The pastor read. Her black coat swirled. Dirt
In a wedge on my thumb. No frost on the flowers yet,
The caretaker said, though it’s so late. I shook
His hand. Come back, he said, now that you’ve been.

— Jordan Smith

Jordan Smith’s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” will be in the forthcoming issue of Big Fiction. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.

  One Response to “On the Suicides at the NY/Canada Border & Other Poems — Jordan Smith”

  1. I see he has an Iowa MFA. Didn’t he also do graduate work at Hopkins? I recall seeing him read a poem called Sugar in the Gourd there, in late ’70s.

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