I’ll say it once: read these poems. Sombre, eloquent beauty marching by the words, line after line. I have known Jordan Smith since we were students at the Iowa Writers Workshop together, yea, these thirty or more years ago. He has only gotten better (can’t say the same for myself). Just look at “Brevity” which in one long sentence seems to compass life and mystery and the dwindling of self (“…we disciples of friction, know how each little slip/ Undoes becoming, becomes undoing…”) and the flight of wisdom (“that great, awkward/ (Scrawled in the margins) auk”). Beautiful poems. Nothing more to be said.
2 Movies, 3 Transgressions
— for DSJ
Brideshead. The Dreamers. There is a great house,
An unexpected arrangement; a moment, a manner of meeting.
Brother, sister, friend of my youth. Instructions
For lovers (not yet), a protocol for seeing, for memory,
For the accidental, which is also the most practiced. There is a veil,
But we are allowed this glimpse, and so the first
Transgression is nearly the second: the wish to see
Becomes the sight, becomes only what remains
Of nobility: its willfulness, its audience. Not the dress
Circle dozing through Pelleas and the long diminuendo,
Not indifference, or all its commonplace misapprehensions,
Nor the familiar, shrugged hope that it will all end badly enough.
It is sentiment we’re left with, as if all those scandals
Were only a means to linger in the presence of something
Like pleasure, something, like salvation we were called
To witness, nodding assent to its poor tangled (gone,
And none too soon) shadows until the lights came on.
A Glass of Finger Lakes Red
Winifred Smith, 1917-2011
Ten years old, drowsy, bored
In the catspaws on Canandaigua Lake,
I could hear the halyards shake,
See the telltales flutter, shift
As wind freshened off the shale cliffs
Of the Bristol Hills. The mainsail slacked
Then filled, the hull heeled as we tacked.
I held the jib. Dad, smoking, perched
On the foredeck, half on watch
To see I kept things trim. Mom
Had the tiller. It was her calm
Pleasure I remember best,
Repeating the words for me, the mast
And gunwales, the centerboard shackle,
The frayed wire stays, the boom’s worn tackle,
Names for the boat, the lake, the weather.
In memory, love and naming tethered;
She’s in the low sun, bow splash, rope
On the palm, waves’ pitch and slope,
A few high cumulus barely looming.
He arm rests on the cockpit coaming.
And sunset is a local wine
Like this one, sweet and full, entwined
With shale and silt, the long, thin lake,
A sailboat, a mother, and their wake.
Sleepy, the boy lets the jib sheet fall,
The canvas luff, feels the hull stall
Until she takes both sails in hand,
Course set, no hurry, back towards land.
A Little Macbeth
Goes a long way. On the Saturday broadcast
On the way home from the grocery store, the witches—
Not three voices, but three choruses, the announcer says,
And trained to screech, swarm from the woods
To preach lies (sort of) to power. And I might be tempted too,
To sit in the driveway, to listen to how it all comes to light,
Jung’s collective unconscious, but so singular in how
We bear it, bear it forth. Until, of course, Verdi
Hams it up—he can’t resist those pizzicatos, those
Piccolos, those you’ve-got-to-hum-it melodies—
And though the voice over’s back, telling us how
In the third act all apparitions, mute or lyric
Will be revealed, here’s this astounding early spring
Heat wave, a shimmer of new buds, and as welcome
As simple prophecy: the space between bare trees
Dwindles, and is it just the summer or are they moving
Towards us, into the emptiness some king has left,
And not to crown the oak or bristling pine,
But only because the same chorus I can’t see anywhere
Has fallen silent to summon them.
Is the soul of it, so easily worn, worn away, to keep
The foot from the path, and although the mystics say the two
Are one, we disciples of friction, know how each little slip
Undoes becoming, becomes undoing, and to speak of it
Requires that we have less and less to say, which is all
I seem to have left, now that wisdom, that great, awkward
(Scrawled in the margins) auk has simply shown itself, flightless
And gone, a kind of sermon, and the kind I like best
Since it’s over quickly, so quickly I startle in the pew
As from a dream of brevity that meant just to go on and on.
The Dream of the Quarry
The night I knew my mother would be dying
I dreamed the dream again, but differently.
A small town square, cobbled streets, close houses,
A labyrinth of lanes, and mews, and closes,
The kind of doorways you might see in Dublin,
But this was on a height above the Hudson..
This time I was no tourist, drawn to the windows
Of shops or down streets where the vista dwindled
Beyond the dream’s permission. I wanted home,
Somewhere beyond the river’s cliffs: homecoming.
The fog was thick. The road I took led upward,
Past rising shale, dead-ending in a quarry.
There was one door, a hall of seated children
Silent in rose red robes, in meditation.
(The night before I’d dreamed of a temple carved
Of rock that color, elaborate, barbaric,
A place of sacrifice, panic, assassins,
But this was worse, so calm,as if redemption
Meant letting go at last of all we’d loved,
Meant admitting the world was stone, unmoving.)
I left, more lost, climbed a wooden scaffold
Near the wall’s top. On the river below, a gaff-rigged
Sloop was tacking upstream, upwind, and heeling.
Remember how for Christ the world unreeled
Below him as the tempter offered thrones,
Powers, dominions, the conclusion half-foregone,
Half balanced like a foot on a ladder’s rung,
No place to put it right that wasn’t wrong.
Jordan Smith‘s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” is forthcoming issue of Big Fiction. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.