on Primer, poems by Aaron Smith (University of Pittsburgh Press)

I first encountered Yeats’ essay “A General Introduction for My Work” while working towards my writing degree. The essay appeared in 1937 just two years before Yeats died. As a young person hoping to be called a poet, I wanted to express my various distresses. But Yeats interrupted, provoking me to pause and consider: “Neither scholars nor the populace have sung or read anything generation after generation because of its pain … imagination must dance, must be carried beyond feeling into the aboriginal ice.” What did he mean by this? What are the steps of that dance, how do I go about transmuting my weighty feelings, and what in the world is aboriginal ice?

AaronCover.jpgThe latter’s crystalline coldness, I came to understand after a few decades, is not primarily a matter of a chilly tone. Indicating preferences that pertain as much to character as to technique, Yeats extolled the traditional values of the heroic and the dramatic, merged the somber with the vigorous, and sniffed at the merely pathetic. He valorized fortitude and defiance, intuitively styled (“I know what I have tried to do, little of what I have done”). This iciness is the basecamp of a solitary willingness to bear certain pressures and the torque of inner conflict. Those who can bear the pressures may be poets, and those who can’t are no more than op-ed writers and memoirists.

Aaron Smith’s third collection, Primer, abounds with distressful memories and tells of a culture all too willing to withhold consolation and recognition. His immediacies are unforgettable, the emotive drive is unmistakable. But Smith’s work actually hinges on the diffidence that marks truly accomplished poetry, the distance necessary to create a working space for art.

COLLEGE SUMMER

You’ll heal, she says, if I can get
the poison out.
I take off
my shirt to let my mother

squeeze pimples on my
back. I imagine she
imagines me naked, different

from the child I was
before I never let her
see me undressed, not once

in a towel, never
swimming in front of her
again. She doesn’t know

last week I had sex
with a stranger and cringed
each time he put his

hands on my back,
the broken-out skin
Braille across my shoulders –

a scrape of fingernail, pinch,
warm spill, the careful wiping
and our careful quiet.

Having played a passive role with mother and stranger, the one who remembers becomes active through shaping an original and untried event of speaking. In the space of recollection, something new coalesces – a word-space that enables him finally to wield his own tenderness as a skill, a balm. Out of private grief comes an opportunity for social response and distanced intimacy with the reader. The poem is exquisitely balanced between care and misuse, the exposed and hidden, shame and admission, cringe and contentment. Pleasure arrives from the sheer acknowledgement of it all, as well as from the power to place disparate and scattered desires within a singular shape. But no artifact, no poem, can dissolve the deeper anguish. It isn’t for the sake of making a comparison that Smith puts the mother’s and the stranger’s hands in proximity, nor to diminish or blur their powerful particularities. What one experiences as reader, alongside the one who recalls, is nothing less than the enjoyment of what has not been granted: wholeness of life through the wholeness of a poem.

The sound of tenderness in Primer is more than a grace note and less than an ostinato. The poem that contains it doesn’t presume that tenderness can make up for what has been lost. In other words, the sweetness doesn’t reflect credit on the poet. This is the ice, the strength that fights for actual life. The site of stress is the body, recalled and in the moment of speaking. For any of us, is it really such a long glance back to “I am afraid to own a Body -- / I am afraid to own a Soul -- / Profound – precarious Property -- / Possession, not optional -- ” … Dickinson.

For Smith, possession of the specific body is so problematic that options such as dispossession must be fully imagined:

NOTHING

Winter. I called the utility company because I thought
I smelled gas, thought my oven
was going to poison me in my own studio on 89th.
The range was too hot to touch
not turned on. I stared at it from my bed, white,
shadowy box I could fit my whole body in.
When the man came, he said it was just
the pilot light burning too close to the range.
I still asked him to unhook it until I could
get the landlord to look. I knew I wouldn’t hook
it back up, would order Chinese
for months because I couldn’t leave the apartment
without checking the stove 15 times.
I couldn’t sleep, afraid I would die in my sleep.
Afraid I would want to die in my sleep.
One night when I first moved in, when the meds
weren’t working, I turned the knob just enough
to release gas and leaned in close to the click, click,
click, not letting the burner ignite, wanting so badly
to fall asleep inside that click. A nothing
I could wake up in where I wouldn’t clench, count,
walk back inside that door every day,
afraid to leave, always checking.

Still smelling of natural gas, “Nothing” amasses itself as a stay against – and as a replacement for -- the nothing “I could wake up in.” It leaves us wondering and concerned about the condition of the one who recalls the oven, as if the poem emits silent questions: What am I concerned with? What am I now attached to? Am I really entitled to this safe if tenuous place of speaking? “Poetry is such a small dream” he writes in “Ars Poetica.”

Aaron.jpegPrimer pivots, sometimes wildly, between abjection and hope, renewed hurt and tentative gratitude, gravity and glibness. “Like Him” begins, “I’m almost forty and just understanding my father / doesn’t like me,” and ends, “I learned to fight like his father, like him: / the meanest guy wins, don’t ever apologize.” Smith converts his own meanness into candor, a harshness flavored by plentiful wit. The poems suggest without expectation that perhaps verbal dexterity is sufficient to counter the violence in the world. The father’s hunting rifles, the grandfather’s suicide by gunshots, the potential for self-injury – all are mitigated, but not erased, by modest relief. “Not All Faggots Bump Themselves Off at the End of the Story” ends …

Even after years of the pills working,
years after leaving that church,
after telling friends I used to wake up
and make the decision, every day, between
going to work or killing myself, there’s that part of me
that I’m not supposed to talk about, that keeps
those who love me awake at night.
I can still read about someone who cashed it in,
who called it all off, and I think: so lucky.

In a remarkable 22-part sequence titled “Blue Exits,” Smith meditates briskly, humanely, and at moments darkly comically on what he is “not supposed to talk about”: “Get a hobby, a shrink said. / I consider that scrapbooking / is keeping people alive.” The sequence's references are bluntly personal in nature. But Smith is more interested in the ambiguity of experience than any one of its countless shocking truths. Uncertainty of his self is enacted in the changing forms and sounds of his language rather than through proclamation. We have more than enough of the latter in poetry today. Furthermore, Smith's work teaches that verbal precision is a requirement of ambiguity, not its antithesis. This is a classic skill.

The current poetry zeitgeist may prod us to read Primer strictly through the lens of identity and militancy against “normative narratives” – and no poet I know is more directly expressive than Smith in portraying the internalized phobias of gender identity, sexuality, the body, and the question Do I deserve love? But let’s not scant the poems’ tense complexities in favor of facile take-aways. The reader responds to the fact of the boy’s shame of his body, desires and preferences. But it is not his pain but his presence that Smith wants us to register. His poems are disruptive fragments of stubborn duration and survival.

In his essay “Beginning to Remember,” Adam Zagajewski writes, “A strong poetic talent produces two contradictory phenomena. It suggests, on the one hand, intense participation in the life of your age, plunging into it up top your neck, an obsessive experiencing of actuality. It leads, on the other hand, to a certain kind of alienation, distance, absence. It is ceaseless interplay of proximity and distance.” Aaron Smith plunges us into the deep end of the pool and its turmoils of identity. But his work also comprises the elusive, the mysterious and the unspeakable. Most mysterious of all is his artistic transmutation of the finished into the maybe-possible, of the remembered into brief moments of unexpected speech.

[Published October 11, 2016. 94 pages, $15.95 paperback]