118 pages, $14
Stephen E. Smith was born in Easton, Maryland, in 1946. After graduating from Elon College, he attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he received his MFA in 1971. His poems, stories, columns, and reviews have appeared in many periodicals and anthologies. He is the author of seven previous books of poetry and prose and is the recipient the Poetry Northwest Young Poet's Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry, and four North Carolina Press awards. He lives in Southern Pines, North Carolina and contributes columns, reviews, and features toThe Pilot and PineStraw magazine.
Whatever There Was To Say
A sky the pallor of hands folded in a casket
You are driving south on Church Street this November
afternoon, and as you approach a railway crossing,
you notice a family, or what you believe
to be a family, walking the road—a man, a woman,
a boy, and a small girl, who is maybe eight.
The girl wears a blue print dress and is barefoot
in this late chill. And because the sky is the gray
of your grandmother’s hands, you recall how that
old woman embraced you years ago as you sat in the
Avalon Theatre watching the movie news, the face
of a shivering child, a girl about the age of this
small girl, waiting beside a death camp railway.
Your grandmother put her arms around you there in
the darkness and you were embarrassed, felt awkward:
an old woman clinging to you, a child of eight,
in a crowded theatre. But your grandmother is a long
time dead and you have come to understand that shoeless
children are, these days, simply shoeless children:
you’ve seen so many and so much worse.
Yet there is something about this family,
this child, her straight yellow hair cut
at such a ragged angle, the thin face, eyes set
deep in shadow. And her brother in a green cap,
her father, tight-waisted in blue trousers,
the mother in a heavy, white-flecked overcoat.
They carry plastic bags filled with aluminum cans
gathered from the roadsides and ditches. And haven’t
you seen these very faces in photographs of Jews,
Gypsies, Poles, eyes blank with resignation, fatigue,
awaiting the gas chamber, clutching their belongings—
as if those few scraps of cloth could be of some value
where they were going? You wonder about this family,
wonder if the future of this small girl is as clear
as the past in photographs. Wonder how these church
steeples dare to rise straight into the smoky skies
of this most terrible of centuries. How neatly they
weave themselves among the bare branches of oak and
sycamore! And haven’t you finally come to understand
that whatever there was to say cannot be said?
Which is probably what your grandmother was telling
you in the darkness of that long ago matinee
when she held you hard against her as you watched
that child shivering beside the death camp railway.
Remember how you tried to pull away and how she held
on tight, as if that simple, desperate gesture
might make any difference in such a world?
The Poet’s Photograph
When I see a poet’s photograph with the name
of the photographer printed below in tiny letters,
why do I believe that the poet and the photographer
were once lovers? It is a ridiculous assumption.
Maybe the poet paid to have his photograph taken,
though I know this is seldom the case, or perhaps
the photographer was a faithful admirer of poets
and poetry, pleased to have been included in some
discreet yet significant way. And why when the poet’s
wife snapped the shutter, do I believe they haven’t
been lovers in decades, a more likely assumption?
And what of the photograph of the poet reading,
lean body bent over the lectern, his left hand
grasping air, his face drawn with intensity,
how is it I know he went home with the photographer,
an attractive widow whose dead husband was
a kindly but obscure botanist who toppled one
spring morning into a variety of pinkish day lily
which bore his name, that after the cocktail party
she invited the poet to see her collection of rare
paraphernalia and that they tossed back a couple
of bourbons and tumbled straight away into the sack
where the poet recited Donne’s “Love’s Progresse”
and kissed gently her plump toes?
I’m sure it was raining that October night,
a warm panging on the tin roof, the lingering
scent of cinnamon air freshener, a blue neon light
flashing from the bar across the street, and that
in the morning they were both embarrassed, the poet
taking his leave somewhat awkwardly, and that he
never thought of the widow again until he opened a
letter forwarded to him in Greece where he was
languishing sans inspiration: Came across this
photograph—can it be so many years?—and thought
you might like it. I am married now to a botanist,
a kindly man who cannot make love because of recurrent
atrial fibrillation. Will you be reading in this area soon?
And the poet studied the photograph of someone
who seemed a stranger and thought: the perfect
likeness for my next book.
An article in this morning’s Observer,
like other articles I’ve chance to read
on the life of Jane Mansfield,
notes that she was decapitated
when the car in which she was riding
crashed into a truck north of New Orleans.
This is what everyone who recalls
the buxom blonde remembers immediately—
like the neighbor who can tell you
that Walt Whitman was a homosexual
or that Catherine the Great
was a nymphomaniac who practiced bestiality.
The publicity photograph which
accompanies this article is not true to fact
or life: Mansfield is a brunette, smiling
a thick-lipped Monroe smile and thrusting
her breasts into the camera lens.
What would she have us believe—lover,
innocent, earthmother? In a faded tintype,
Whitman has gathered children about him.
He is affectionate, tender, ingenuous,
passionate, but certainly unaware of the
prurient obsessions which will one day
distort his finest lines. And who is
to say for sure that Catherine the Great
had a thousand lovers and left a poor
aroused pony dangling from the palace ceiling?
I wonder about the bewildered
man who came across a headless Jane Mansfield
on a highway north of New Orleans.
Did he recall the yellowing issue of Playboy
that lay creased beneath his mattress?
Could he see, if only for an instant, her nude
body arching, nipples erect, lips pursed?
Did he wonder: Is this twitching flesh
the very same? Did he ever find
the simple words to speak a simple truth?
To my father
That summer you hired out to clean swimming pools
up and down Delmarva in your Willys truck,
the back end clanking with pumps and pipes,
cans of HTH, diatomaceous earth and alum,
and hauled me along to skim from the chlorined
waters hopeless, deluded toads and the clotted
bodies of insects.
I was ten that summer but can remember
how the surface of each pool was a surprise,
the water still clear or gone cloudy,
the blue bottoms flecked with algae
and the shimmering coins I retrieved for baloney
sandwiches and sodas at the Royal Oak Grocery.
You’d place a hand on my shoulder and say,
“Dive deep and get us that lunch money.”
Do you recall the August afternoon at the Talbot
County Country Club, the thirty-six filter bags
we pulled and laundered, the steel rings so tight
our fingers bled? It was a five-hour job
and when the bags and screens were back in place,
you dropped a pipe wrench clanging to the bottom.
It was five more hours in the high beams
and neither of us spoke till the filter
lid was clamped and screwed down tight.
Then we leaned against the truck and shared
a warm soda. Sheet lightning streaked
over the Chesapeake, and I began to notice
how after each flash, I went momentarily blind.
“It’s strange,” you said, finally, and without
my having spoken a word, “how quickly the pupil
closes to the light and how complete the darkness is.
It must be like dying.”
Tonight I watch a storm gather over Carolina,
the lightning so intense the billowing undersides
of clouds are illumined from horizon to horizon,
each flash stealing me into shadow. Perhaps,
as you said, it is like death, this sudden light
and inevitable darkness. Or perhaps it is the
purest grace. It says what fathers and sons
mostly cannot say: It is the quick chill of a hand
on my shoulder, it’s like plunging deep
into the pure, blue waters of the rich.