A lyrical search for wisdom and meaning in the life of a man growing up in the New South of desegregating schools, rock-and-roll music, mobile populations, and volatile wars, Little Boats, Unsalvaged displays the profound historical sensibility that has long marked the poetry of Dave Smith. Smith exhibits here a mature perspective on his childhood in a racially violent society and on his troubled search for happiness, whether sexual, professional, or aesthetic. To that, he adds a chorus of elegies for poets central to his understanding of his native region—including Edwin Muir, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate—and a vision of poetry as the art that unites medieval and contemporary elements. Section by section, changes in subject, tempo, and even vocabulary offer at once a sense of unity and variety to the poems. Little Boats, Unsalvaged poses a polyphonic inquiry into the experiences and memories of the Vietnam-defined generation, an inquiry whose answers can only be tentative, fretted, hung in the contingencies of being just as the little boat of joy waits—not useless or lost, but abandoned and so beyond visible redemption.
In the Library
Beneath leaf-light fluttered ceilings,
river’s gaudy flashes and streams,
language lost when we waken
in books, their muted horizons,
I step quietly. Five students sprawl.
Two at bookbags curled, fetal.
Three appear almost bags of flesh,
shot in chairs, or robbed, trashed,
mysteries unsolved. But no crime,
though something’s come
to rake loot as students sleep.
Some treasure seems missing, its feel
bleeds under these sleepers. I take
my chair, and sigh, break my book,
and one’s cell phone rings like hope
uselessly. Brave enough to flop,
they drift past tests dim as water.
What makes them dream? I feared
unknowns, gaps, history’s blank
with no name, no clue. Panicked,
I’m their age again, unsure, then
asleep, watching my head lift in
nightmares of who I am, or not.
1965. Ratty jeans, no socks,
button-down, tweed, striped tie
half-loose, hair chaos like JFK.
Puppies, we crawled to the edge,
night barked big words, little dogs
of Cuba. What did we know?
Some died. Asia. Some I knew.
Notes on dates, facts, forces,
theorems, theories, abstract choices
battles, weapons . . . what explained?
Did dead fathers find it this way,
in books, sleeping? I’m vexed,
a teacher wandering dusty stacks,
as I often do, weight to read
less than trouble on my mind,
a need to loaf as light twists
leaves, drops here. Is it happiness
flows by, like sun on water?
What I feel with these dreamers,
faces blank of intent,
earphones on, playing the end
of songs to me foreign as tombs,
books they won’t open or use
to sniff blood’s secrets, facts
somebody’s listed, names, lost
hopes surfaced here again
and again. Let tests be done.
My heart’s up, down. These
go steady as new machines.
Each will go fast, faster. Then stop.
Still as memory. Slack as rope.
Books gape. The mystery’s
breath itself, sun, dark. Sharp keys
poke my pocket like a need.
Still, I don’t want to leave.
Lingering with penitents
soon to wake seems mostly right,
if it’s little, really, but masks,
a room of dust on fate’s books,
a room of sun blurring words
where people come for answers.
“In the Library” published in Little Boats,Unsalvaged by Dave Smith. Copyright © 2005 by Dave Smith. All rights reserved.
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