“There are two schools: one that sings the sheen and hues, the necessary pigments and frankincense while the world dries and the other voice like water that seeks to saturate, erode, and boil . . . It ruins everything you have ever saved.”
Spill is a book in contradictions, embodying helplessness in the face of our dual citizenship in the realms of trauma and gratitude, artistic aspiration and political reality. The centerpiece of this collection is a lyrical essay that recalls the poet’s time working at the Federal Penitentiary at Lewisburg in the 1960s. Mentored by the insouciant inmate S, the speaker receives a schooling in race, class, and culture, as well as the beginning of an apprenticeship in poetry. As he and S consult the I Ching, the Book of Changes, the speaker becomes cognizant of other frequencies, other identities; poetry, divination, and a synchronous, alternative reading of life come into focus. On either side of this prose poem are related poems of excess and witness, of the ransacked places and of new territories that emerge from the monstrous. Throughout, these poems inhabit rather than resolve their contradictions, their utterances held in tension “between the hemispheres of songbirds and the hemispheres of men.”
Smith (Devotions) dismantles the boundaries among the lyric, travelogue, and philosophy in this hybridized collection. Comprising an extended sequence, the work considers lingering questions of cultural memory, trauma, and violence from a diverse set of vantage points. As Smith shifts gracefully among locales, genres, and temporal moments, the text performs and enacts its apt title, questioning the extent to which any individual voice exists apart from a shared cultural imagination. He asks whether a person can be purified "without being banished or erased." The voice is revealed as a social construct, and the speakers of these poems often contain multitudes. For Smith, this collective consciousness is as rich with dialogue as it is laden with trauma. He elaborates, "Because I lack imagination// somebody, a Christ, a boy in custody, dies/ each evening." The speaker gestures at his complicity with the larger mechanisms of culture, but also realizes his inability to change his own subject position. Though the philosophical ideas in these poems are wholly intriguing, their weaknesses go hand in hand with their strengths. The book's "suffering and sorrow" may prove overwhelming to some readers, with the tangible details of history occasionally swirling into a cacophonous din. Nonetheless, Smith's accomplished volume considers history, violence, and subjectivity with compassion and remarkable insight.