June 2003

Tim Walker

poetry

The Flood & The Garden: A Daybook by Dale Smith

This is an aggravating book. It is aggravating because the jewelline parts -- lines or paragraphs memorable both for pithy phrases and pithy ideas -- lie cheek-by-jowl with woolly rants or mumblings that fail to convince. In this slim volume's many small chapters, Dale Smith, an Austinite who runs the Skanky Possum poetry journal with his wife, Hoa Nguyen, limns some of the eclectic reading and eclectic thinking that informed his own thoughts during the six-month period leading up to the birth of the couple's son. The result is thought-provoking and often beautiful, albeit much in need of another firm edit.

Then again, Smith has warned us with his subtitle. This really is a daybook, a kind of philosophical journal, and with the form come both benefits and pitfalls for the reader. First, and more important, the good news, which flows from the book's freshness. The narrative doesn't try to be coherent in the way that a monograph or a novel or a memoir would. Rather, insofar as it coheres, it does so around the ideas and personalities and actions of Smith, his wife, and their friends who populate the book. (The last section of the book coheres beautifully around the birth of Smith and Nguyen's son.) The book builds its power as it goes along by weaving together ideas and images that Smith returns to time and again. Among them are the flood and garden themes of the title, as well as repeated excursions into myth, the classics, and the work of William Carlos Williams. (Even if had done nothing else, the book would have firmed my resolve to return to Williams after too many years away.)

Smith offers plenty of choice intellectual tidbits along the way. As you'd hope from a poet and poetry editor, for example, he talks good sense about poetry: "Words aren't thoughts but ideas in things, and poets attend not what they mean to say but how what they say means." Or again, "Poetry is a natural science, is the collection and distribution of images." I'd never thought of it that way, but that's one of the pleasures of good writing: the encounter with images that you couldn't muster for yourself.

More good lines center around Smith's loathing for the crass ugliness and the stupidity of our culture's most banal elements. When Smith writes that "the chaplain from the hospice came to say words I can't bear to hear from that eggshell world of literal religion," I nod my head. Likewise when he writes about a hopelessly commerce-minded lad he calls "the Ape,": "I saw in his eyes the lone gaze of conquest, a young man in submission to Empire, totally." Yes -- we see it all too much, and these words pin it down precisely.

One more piece of good news: The work is more organized than a raw journal or edited journal would be. Good thing, too, since you have to be pretty damn interesting to make a journal work as a book: Edmund Wilson did it, and I enjoy the journals of Mircea Eliade, but both of these writers were polymaths with densely and subtly textured intellectual lives, not to mention (very different) sets of personal quirks to spice their pages.

From this book, it is apparent that Smith also has an interesting intellectual and personal life. (I won't do him the disservice of comparing him with Wilson or Eliade; I'd hate to have that test set for myself.) But -- and here's where the bad news starts -- for all that his wide and various reading and thinking sets off sparks in the reader's mind, Smith doesn't consistently offer enough order to fan these sparks into flame.

Another way of breaking the news: the book, while professionally done, doesn't fully cohere on the level of prose This isn't a criticism of Smith's voice, which is highly eclectic. Such a voice can be powerful when used by a writer like Gary Snyder, but it demands a sure hand that Smith doesn't always demonstrate. Smith muses, contemplates, meditates, and rambles -- too often all in the same paragraph. When his choices go awry, he is like a musician who insists on shifting into minor keys and bending notes a little too far, a bit too often. This isn't to say he's a bad musician: Sonny Rollins is sometimes guilty of what I'm describing, and I'll gladly take it as a cost of listening to Rollins. But -- like most of us -- Smith isn't such a strong writer that he can afford the squeaks that Rollins can.

Minus the rambling, Smith's book could be an intellectual tonic of high sensibility. With the rambling left in, we get lines that fall flat, as in this description from the chapter "Chiminea Party": "My head is light, and I drink more to upload the senses. The room buzzes while outside Hoa coaxes flame." Ehh . . . Even leaving aside whether the senses can be "uploaded," this doesn't work as good writing.

Even more typical is the juxtaposition of great lines with weak ones, as in this passage from the book's first page:

"But look out the window at the commerce-littered land. Our bodies live in that? No time to consider more than what is. Out in the sour Chevy heartland, America sprawls under suburbs and cheap construction, malls and entertainment zones. Splattered roadkill guts. Personality infections. There's recreation because creation was unprofitable. There can never be enough cleared land."

Ten different people will read this ten different ways, but here's my go at it. The first two sentences are strong: "commerce-littered land" is quotable, and the rhetorical question that follows aptly conveys Smith's disgust. The next sentence -- "No time to consider more than what is" -- falls short. Besides being unremarkable as prose, it fails if it's supposed to deliver some sort of philosophical punch. (Also, a Buddhist might contend that the problem isn't that there's no time to consider more than what is, but that most people don't take the time to consider what is.) The next phrase is great -- "the sour Chevy heartland" is vivid and memorable. But what's an "entertainment zone"? Why is the ugly non-sentence of "Splattered roadkill guts" here? "Peronality infections": another (overly cute) non-sentence, and why is it here? "There's recreation because creation was unprofitable" -- I like this thought the more I read it. "There can never be enough cleared land." This is a beautiful sentence, and a damning indictment of the mindset it reflects.

At bottom, Smith's digressive approach is sometimes delightful, sometimes frustrating. If you're intent upon looking for A-to-B connections in prose, you will be frustrated by this book. If, however, you're content not to force the issue, you'll likely -- while reading, or upon reflection -- come up with some killer A-to-R-via-Sasketchewan connections.

As I write this (or any) review, I'd do well to heed Smith's own words: "Those jugheads who want to kill the imagination sit in smug wait of any wrong move, and the coastline vanishes, poisons spread and language seizes under the spell of contagion."

Well, I think I want to follow that advice, anyway.

The Flood and the Garden by Dale Smith
First Intensity Press
ISBN: 1889960071
104 Pages

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