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Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Thursday, January 18, 2007


In his recent collection of essays and interviews, Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry (LSU Press, 2006), Dave Smith repeatedly emphasizes the importance of place in poetry. Not only does he recognize the role region has held in his own poetry, but he believes for most poets the location of birth and upbringing, or perhaps an adopted geographical territory one comes to consider home, exerts extraordinary influence over their perspectives and the style of language brought into the work. Smith even declares: “Regional identity is central to poetry’s power. Great poetry cannot be divorced from an intimate, organic link to place.”

Although some may challenge the comprehensive stretch of such a wide-ranging generalization and offer a name or two of significant poets who do not seem to conform to this formula, certainly one also could easily construct a long list of poets who fit perfectly into this profile. What matters most here, however, is that Smith views himself as a writer of place—most often of the South, particularly the tidewater area of Chesapeake Bay, although a couple of Smith’s best books, Goshawk, Antelope and Dream Flights, center on the mountainous West where Smith lived for a brief time. As Smith indicates: “Place may be native landscape or the landscape one’s imagination possesses.”

The opening section of Little Boats, Unsalvaged returns readers of Smith’s poetry to familiar ground since most of the poems look back, sometimes with nostalgia and longing, to the poet’s early experiences growing up in coastal Virginia. As he has done so well in the past, Smith chronicles his boyhood and adolescence, a loss of innocence and maturing to manhood, celebrating the figures that helped shape the young man he once was. However, in these poems the poet seems to exhibit even more wistfulness than in past collections. Smith’s sometimes affectionate glimpses into his past also appear to evoke a sense of yearning or regret that so much time has passed, and during that lapse of decades many of the people or places he loved have changed or are gone, including that young self he barely recognizes in his fading memories: “What year was that? My memory swims, reaches” (“Aunt Pink and Uncle Brownie’s Day”).

In a poignant poem (“Against Blossoms”) about his father, who was killed most likely by a drunk driver in a horrible automobile accident on Mother’s Day while Smith was still in high school, the narrator reports about the father’s death, “oil on the street, open as a rose.” The lines of this poem draw a tender portrait of the father shown growing flowers in a garden, “watering what he won’t see bloom,” and at the funeral Smith is reminded by everyone how much he looks like his father, remarks that cause the teenager to grin, “bright as undying / blossoms climbing what he’d leave, and so would I.”

The second section of Little Boats, Unsalvaged presents a series of poems written about travels overseas. Although the location for the poems is beyond the borders of Smith’s usual terrain, readers might feel a refreshing change of pace with the shift of setting. Seemingly uneasy about being out of place in some of these poems, the speaker sometimes appears to be comforted by comparisons containing allusions to more familiar surroundings or experiences. In “Pre-Alps” a black Mercedes “curves / like a possum in Maryland’s night wood where / my dead uncle took me hunting.” Even the constellations above are seen in relation to back home: “down-spiraling stars vanish as I see them / over Virginia’s marshes. My grandfather / said God seems to call them back” (“Seeking Words”).

Although Smith’s personal poems always appear to engage some of the larger issues confronting all individuals, at times Smith more obviously expands his poetry beyond the autobiographical to include compelling pieces involving social concerns or historical moments of horror. In “Antique German Cycle with Sidecar at Hotel Du Lac” Smith, after admitting his own previous lack of great knowledge about World War II, imagines a scene involving the village’s lovely floral setting a half century ago: “Boxwoods, trimmed, round, / thicken like hair on a Jew’s boy in market stalls; plump / oleander trees, whiter than a German lieutenant’s gloves // drop tender offerings on unmeasurable dark with each / gust of the coming storm.” Earlier in the book, in “Following the Cross” Smith describes a situation when as a boy he witnessed a Klan rally: “Big men, white-sheeted, stood, eyes to the flame ooze, / smoke’s stream starring wood’s crown and tin / roof where a farmer lived.” Both poems exhibit the kind of power readers have found in Smith’s best lyrical narratives over the years.

A third section of this book focuses even more closely on elegiac verse, as Smith presents poems recalling or honoring, to one degree or another, a number of authors, including Bernard Malamud, Edwin Muir, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and William Matthews. Perhaps in these poems—as in the other pieces remembering people or places from his earlier days and reliving a period long gone, occasionally by reviving the younger self as persona—Smith gives an indication of his increased desire to reflect on the passage of time and on impermanence. The book’s touching title poem, drawn from this section, serves the perfect metaphor for mortality, the effects of corrosion caused by time’s handling, and the natural cycles of life.

In 1996 Smith published Fate’s Kite, a collection of brief poems pre-determined in the writing process to be thirteen lines of eleven syllables each. The book, his previous individual collection before Little Boats, Unsalvaged (a group of new poems also appeared in The Wick of Memory, his 2000 book of “selected poems”), represented an admirable attempt at experimentation with his poetry; however, the compressed form appeared to be too confining, restricting Smith’s poetic voice, especially its elevated sense of language and storytelling. In Little Boats, Unsalvaged Dave Smith once again offers readers a robust volume of poetry that shows off the poet’s broad voice with its full and rolling tone. The language is lavish, energetic, and generous. The poet’s emotional subject matter is engaging and accompanied by an often-affecting elegiac tone.

For some, Dave Smith’s use of language may be an acquired taste. His poetry has been criticized for its sometimes-difficult syntax, and the lyricism of his long narratives has been questioned. Smith has acknowledged an interest in a muscular language, perhaps obtained from the two poets who have most influenced his work, Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey. In one of the interviews from Hunting Men, Smith confesses to a taste for thick layering of language in his lines: “Over the years this has tended to excess, it comes out more Anglo-Saxon alliterative and jammed stresses now than it used to.”

However, Smith is at his best when he loads layer on layer through narratives with looping language in longer sentences resembling the exaggerated rhetoric of oratory, allowing for an ambitious and risky narrative voice as appears in “Plowman,” the long work that stands as the sole poem in the final section of this collection and acts as testament to how this poet values “the courage of living,” even as he sees much of life has slipped into the past, become “the less and less that lives.” Smith pays respect to those who have gone before him, and he is aware of the kinds of erosion that occur over time: “And of God, who owns all the hardware and time / that rusts or breaks it.” Fortunately, however, he also continues to display in his poetry why life is worth living, while he keeps an eye on the future and new beginnings (“no hour bests dawn-glow”), which may relay at least a little bit of hope for all to hold no matter where we live under that rising sun.

Smith, Dave. Little Boats, Unsalvaged. LSU Press, 2005.

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