Early Distant Warning by Rad Smith
Poetry collections are treated today according to the rules governing mainstream music. A “hit single” amounts to a commercially successful collection. Like musicians, poets are best known to the general population through single poems in anthologies, so one, two, maybe three meditations of a defining nature is all we expect from a good, purchasable collection. Still, occasionally -- perhaps, rarely -- there is a poet who raises the bar; a poet who has less of the “Thriller” or filler and more of the phantastic; a poet who manages to place a collection full of great poems. Such is the case with Rad Smith.
Rad Smith’s debut collection Distant Early Warning is no conventional debut. On the one hand, Smith is now deceased. On the other, Smith was not formally trained as a poet. Smith did take classes with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard College as an undergrad, like many of the more famous contemporary poets, but he worked as an executive in a high-technology firm for fifteen years while also building an international reputation for his knowledge of karate and Japanese swordsmanship. In 1998, diagnosed with final stage lung cancer, he took furiously to poetry, his first love, and composed the collection we have before us at forty-one years of age young. All of this makes for one interesting read.
But one more important fact comes attached to this collection that may/may not inform our reading of the poetry. This collection comes attached with the highest of praise from one Donald Hall -- whose comments in the “Foreword” to the collection, when first released, caused a minor stir in the literary community: “When I first read the poems of Rad Smith, I wrote his widow: ‘As you might imagine, I have seen many manuscripts by people whom I have not known, and over the last fifty years I have read thousands and thousands of poems in manuscript. There is only one other occasion when I read a collection with so much enthusiasm.’”
What I think we can attribute to Hall’s enthusiasm is the life-affirming and human vulnerability of Smith’s verse. What Smith gives us like Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath before him is a rare glimpse inside the shaft of being of the poet. A man who lays his life bare before us as he is called to take stock of his existence. In the face of imminent death, Smith’s collection is meant as a “Distant Early Warning” to the reader to embrace love and life now. Smith considers creating or “making” -- from which the word poetry comes -- of the highest value. He is more concerned with the act of constructing itself that may be inherently flawed than in building the impossible indestructible structure to prevent against an inevitable death. The poem “Before It’s Too Late” begins “Build the perfect, then burn it down. […] You can do it better.”
Smith is essentially a love poet. It is old love that Smith recalls and perceives as the greatest of all joys, which allows him to come to terms with his life and approach his poetry with a tender calm, caring and compassion -- even as he attempts to delicately measure the final pulses of life as he knows them. Love is the language that is most evocative for him, love -- the emotion that he most persistently dwells upon -- and which allows him to enlist his Muse: “When I made love the kiss / just afterwards tastes of arugula” (“Mixed Vegetables”) and “But mostly he cries for the i’s left / forever dotless in love letters, condemned / to a lover’s pointillistic limbo” (“The Man Who Cannot Stop Crying”).
Some of Smith’s meta-poems are simply his best, where he combines his great ear with a good historical poetic appreciation and knowledge. My favorite poem in the collection is “Even One,” where we see the full sweep of his mimetic power:
Unbuckle my money belt,
watch, my halter of keys.
Saw off this insatiable
ring that chokes me.
In this poem where form follows content we have a beautiful reckoning with sound and shape in life and poetry. The poet performs a test of what can/cannot ring and endure true after death plays its part.
Smith’s poetry always lies on the extreme of colloquial possibility somewhere between Zen proverb and pop-culture witticism. To compare him to his teacher Elizabeth Bishop, it may be said that Smith has some of the incredible artistic concentration of perspective of the master, but it is really in originality of attention that Bishop’s mastery reigns higher. Still Smith’s lost is very great. Maybe in his great lost we can take comfort in Eliot’s words, “The most important thing for poets to do is to write as little as possible.”
Early Distant Warning by Rad Smith