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Dale Smith
reviewed by David Hadbawnik
64pp. Punch Press. $10. Paper.

This review is about 7 printed pages long. It is copyright © David Hadbawnik and Jacket magazine 2008.

Against the Mainstream — Dale Smith’s Susquehanna


Theodor Adorno wrote that slippers are “monuments to the hatred of bending down.” “Progress” leads us to more and more such monuments. On a recent flight I leafed through a magazine full of mail-order gadgets, some clever in their obsequious utility: a super-light, heavy-duty, fold-up “sport seat” handy for taking a load off while “listening to the tour guide”; a portable heating mat to keep feet “cozy and warm”; an “E-Pen” for removing “unwanted hair” through electrolysis. Some of them seemed a bit creepy as they bowed to the realities of our new security state: a rolling suitcase designed to allow access to inspectors as easily as possible; some just plain silly: a “Personalized Branding Iron” to sear one’s mark onto grilling meat[1]. All of them, like the slipper, ultimately superfluous to the body that would engage directly with its environment, the body willing to touch and play instead of erase or avoid, move fast or slow instead of precisely and conveniently. The body willing, at times, to get hurt — high-powered “Marshmallow Shooters” notwithstanding.

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A new book by Dale Smith deals with the issue of engagement — physical, intellectual, emotional — in ways that continue to build on the separate threads of his poetic practice up to this point. Together with previous books, Susquehanna fights a rear-guard action against the kind of abstraction Adorno notes. Smith has worked, on the one hand, with close readings of literary-historical figures, such as his rendering of landscape and colonization through the study of Cabeza de Vaca in American Rambler (Thorpe Springs, 2000). That book features tightly wrought lyrics that make use of concision and line break to good effect, without sacrificing an openness of process, a drive to keep moving with language and line in response to the territory — both interior and exterior — that the poems cover.


The Flood and the Garden (First Intensity, 2002) and Black Stone (Effing, 2007), on the other hand, consist mostly of prose blocks, infused with insights from Smith’s reading but hewing much closer to the bone of daily experience, centered around the immediate fact of (respectively) the birth of his first and second sons. It’s not hard to read Susquehanna, with its lineated poems and concern with Coleridge, as a furthering of the trope begun with Rambler, and to consider Black Stone and Garden as categorically different works. Yet Susquehanna, I believe, tracks Smith’s progress in further pulling these two poles of his practice together. The key to both is an insistence at every point on engagement, however uncomfortable it is.


Susquehanna addresses the scheme of Samuel Taylor Coleridge — along with Southey and others — to buy property along the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and establish a Pantisocracy. There, as Smith notes, to enjoy “properties freely shared / in sensus communis / a dream that men and women / would partake equally / in the resources of this land.” From a thematic standpoint, then, the book takes on the retrogressive/populist tendency shared by all the English Romantic poets, perhaps never more fancifully conceived than by Coleridge, with his characteristic depth of detail and logic — however flawed the thinking behind it proved to be. Coleridge, it seems, left the grand gestures and sloganeering to Byron and Shelley; he would investigate soil properties and land prices and correspond with property agents, even if it all made him look like a bit of a sucker and a dreamer in the end. As Thomas Poole wrote in a letter to another friend familiar with the scheme in 1794:


Their plan is as follows: Twelve gentlemen of good education and liberal principles are to embark with twelve ladies in April next.… Their opinion was that they should settle in a delightful part of the new back settlements; that each man would labor two or three hours in a day, the produce of which labor would, they imagine, be more than sufficient to support the colony.… The produce of their industry is to be paid up in common for the use of all; and a good library is to be collected, and their leisure hours are to be spent in study, liberal discussions, and the education of their children.… The regulations relating to the females strike them as the most difficult; whether the marriage contract shall be dissolved if agreeable to one or both parties.… America is certainly a desirable country.[2]


That plan sure sounds like an opium-fueled fantasy culled from the popular travel books of the day and the rosy pictures painted by agents like Poole. Indeed, one friend later reported that “Coleridge had no specific information about the Susquehanna, but that he was attracted to it by the sound of the word” (1073). Despite these claims, at least part of Coleridge’s attraction to the terrain of the Susquehanna was born of his desire to escape the “miasma of London” and get back to the land. He seemed genuinely interested not only in finding a way out of the “deadlock” of “CAPITALISM,” as Smith writes, but also in recovering a physical relationship with nature. And it served a key artistic purpose, as well. Sister Eugenia notes that while the project went unrealized and the poet’s enthusiasm for it gradually waned, “[T]o the scheme and to Coleridge’s interest in travel accounts may be due much of the beautiful and fantastic imagery of his richest literary work.”[3]


This is important, because, as noted above, Smith’s entry point into the theme is at its most vital and interesting when it’s most physical and immediate. In the long poem that opens the book, Smith moves from “the goods / of China India” to “the body count / of Mesopotamia,” critiquing the way these become “images / across flat screens” — yet, as he writes in the next line, “this is no dream.” There’s a contradiction here, captured in the following lines:


the squatters’ shacks of
Lagos gorgeous in the hazy
despair of human misery
flash each instant
gone the days of
easy ignorance when now it
comes hard earned
in the corroded corridors
of psyche


I take these lines to to be Smith’s (perhaps literal) “channel-surfing” through the theme of commodity, location, and disengagement from same, with the recognition that as long as one remains in the flat surface-distance even misery can appear “gorgeous,” while paradoxically the piping in of all these images through various information streams makes “easy ignorance” more difficult to come by — numbing oneself to the horror is hard work these days. Later in the poem, after contemplating the “methamphetamine nightmares / of knowing” ... “an interior risk” — perhaps Coleridge’s, perhaps also our own — Smith ties the theme in with his immediate surroundings and concerns in ways that can’t help but involve and implicate us further:


that revolution fails with the human
arrogance of it
crashing along into middle age
a surplus perspective
black water where berries
ripen beyond reach
except where children swim
through catfish water to reach
the first moist fruit eyes


Here Smith condenses sound and sense, even as he blurs his own self with that of Coleridge — a “surplus perspective” perhaps because of his wised-up take on the old Romantic poet’s crackpot scheme, but also, most poignantly, because with age comes perspective that stretches beyond one’s ability to act on it. Facile to conclude that, by referencing what must be kids splashing around in a local swimming hole, Smith is going for some kind of “children are our future” moment — if anything, this image vexes the question further by at once holding out hope and refusing to make any promise about it. The question, at any rate, can only be approached through one’s own skin:


the passing images bring
this creature back
in its filth
to mime what remains unspoken
whole lives
even now
in the air
and elocutions
wet with that vision


— all of it winding up as a message “undelivered / from the summer shadows / of Susquehanna,” the lines that conclude this long poem.


For me, it’s the sequence of short poems (or one long poem broken into a number of parts) in the “Blackboard & Candle Wax” section of the book that present the theme with the most power and beauty. Perhaps it’s the way the first poem in the section opens with such a resigned air of, well, openness: “If anyone cared / what were they thinking,” and continues in subsequent sections to rehearse the hopes of Coleridge and his fellow schemers. The disengagement with one’s environment that bugged Coleridge, the increasing abstraction of word from deed that concerned all the Romantics and that seemed to hit hyperspeed with the dawn of the Industrial Age, is captured nicely in the third part:


:     innate slate     :     market
empirical pyre in the Lockean eye
the mechanicals made the world in their likeness
smithied up a way of seeing
through the invention
of the lens


Poetry and rhetoric, two sides of a coin that at once opposes and mediates the forces of market, are perhaps that “innate slate,” as Smith delves into the role of the poet in the twisted world that Coleridge sought escape from:


an innate faculty God grants those
in some superior to others
and apprehend
art and nature
in symmetries and
craggy terror sublime


The last couple of lines reiterate the contradiction inherent in “human misery” that has already been pointed out, as well as call to mind Blake’s “fearful symmetry.” This is the double-edged sword of poetry and what it can do. Instead of resting with a concept of squatters’ shacks as “gorgeous,” it actively approaches the difficulties of art and nature, resolving them into some kind of order, some terror that can be endured — one is reminded, too, of lines near the opening of Rilke’s great Duino Elegies: “Beauty is only / the first touch of terror / we can still bear” (translated David Young).[4]


Study thy rhet’rick
word tricks that stick
the mind to its subject
a method of redemption
to perform in our roles
they allow us to know


The “redemption” here must be exactly what use Smith has come to make of his rhetoric, his poetry. It is nothing less than an engagement of self with reality, a way of mind sticking to subject, words sticking to deed. Not a perfect or wholly satisfactory solution any more than Coleridge’s own attempts at capturing the “craggy terror sublime” in his prose and poetry, or, for that matter, the idea of creating a Pantisocracy on the banks of the Susquehanna. You can’t wish away Capitalism — with its slippers, its Personalized Branding Irons, and other monuments to the absurd — just by dreaming up a paradise in a distant land, or writing poetry. Yet, for a poet, for a person, for a body moving through space and time, enlarging and embodying the self is perhaps all there is.


As Smith writes in the final lines of the section:


Scratch the soil thine own
Not thy brother’s not
The Pantisocratic commune
Compose the vast distance of the Self
Slated with clarity and purpose
To know thy will
On this grim earth
Our Lord and Master All


[1] Sky Mall Magazine. Delta Airlines. Early Spring 2008.

[2] Sister Eugenia. “Coleridge’s Scheme of Pantisocracy and American Travel Accounts.” PMLA, 45.4. (1930): 1069—84.

[3] ibid.

[4] Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies. Trans. David Young. New York: Norton. 1978.

David Hadbawnik

David Hadbawnik

David Hadbawnik is a poet and performer currently living with his wife in San Marcos, Texas. Recent publications include the books Ovid in Exile (Interbirth, 2007) and SF Spleen (Skanky Possum, 2006), essays in Big Bridge and Chicago Review, poems in the Marlboro Review (in which his poem “The Gods” was chosen by Heather McHugh as a finalist for the Poetry Prize) and Damn the Caesars. He is the editor and publisher of Habenicht Press and the journal kadar koli. He will begin studying towards his PhD in poetics at SUNY Buffalo in fall 2008.

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