Review by Douglas Rutledge
by Bruce Smith
University of Chicago Press
1427 East 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637 U.S.A.
2011, 104 pp., $18.00
In his most recent book of poetry, Devotions, Bruce Smith introduces us to a jazzy, Whitmanesque meditation on our past that teaches us sweetly about our tendency toward self-destruction and enables us to mourn for that which we have destroyed. In Devotions, Smith also harkens back to a Renaissance genre and a Renaissance poetics to help Americans grieve their recent history. With these classical and contemporary tools in hand Smith manages to create a healing narrative in a distinctly poetic fashion.
Smith assumes for himself what would seem to be a daunting challenge by naming his book Devotions. The best known book with this title belongs to John Donne, arguably one of the greatest poets in the English language. At first glance, it seems difficult to discern why Smith would compare his work with the meditations of John Donne, but in many ways their goals are similar. In Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Donne mourns the loss of life in the meditation made famous by Hemingway. In Donne’s “Meditation XVII,” the poet takes the symbol of an individual death, a bell tolling, and makes us all grieve, as if the death were our own. The lines are almost too well known to bear repeating, and yet they reflect powerfully upon what Smith is attempting to accomplish. Donne reminds us that: “The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all.” Smith may not be concerned with the Church, as such, but the universal stance or at least a perspective that concerns a united people is something that he is very much interested in evoking. Donne goes on to remind us that the death of one human being hurts us all: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore, ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Americans had a similar feeling after the attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11. Most expressed a national grief, feeling that the deaths of those in the tower had diminished every American, had diminished what it means to be an American. Some even realized that the entire world suffered a horrible, though unifying loss. This perspective on grief that transcends the individual is also reflected in Smith’s Devotions.
Smith’s expansive style also has something in common with Donne’s. Louis Martz has famously and justly argued that Donne’s style in the Devotions is based on the meditative style and structure recommended by Saint Ignatius Loyola. I would not go so far as to argue that Smith is interested in Jesuit mediation, but the principle of meditation on death as a form of healing is as important for Smith as it was for Donne. Moreover, in the Devotions Donne speaks about his own poetic style and that of his God, and this, I think, has something to say about the way in which Smith is thinking and indeed writing:
My God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say a literal God that would be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest? But thou art also (Lord I intend it to thy glory, and let no profane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution) a figurative, a metaphorical God too
For Donne, it is not simply the language of the Bible that is infused with metaphor, but creation itself. The entire universe is imbued with a comparison to something else and meaning emanates from the world if we are alert to those relationships. Smith finds similar meaning through comparison. He does not quite use complex metaphors comparable to Donne’s. However, in a jazzy, stream-of-consciousness style, he does run important images together, like slavery and 9/11, so that new and telling meaning gushes out of their relationship.
Smith may change Donne’s meditative style to something closer to the stream of consciousness technique made famous by James Joyce, but like Donne, Smith is able to use his poetic style to consider the ordinary so closely that it becomes profound. Moreover, in “Devotion: Sleep,” Smith says, “If our poetry can’t be / sweet and useful, we must sleep our deformed sleep.” It is perhaps worth noting that the declaration that poetry should be sweet and useful is very much like Sir Philip Sidney’s dictum that poetry should both “teach and delight.” Smith will shake us out of our deformed sleep soon enough, by sweetly helping us work through our grief, while teaching us how we might have avoided our destructive mistakes.
Smith’s devotional style walks us through the narrator’s past and our own in a fashion that does indeed teach us how to reassess our recent history and to think about it in a poetic manner. At the same time, Smith’s narrator assumes various relationships toward his subjects, which are another aspect of his style, as he explores the many ways poetry can be both sweet and useful. Smith’s narrator establishes a range of relationships to his subjects from the very broad to the particular. Each of these is a stance of grieving. This movement of grief from a transcendental group experience to a particular, suffering individual demonstrates once again how any death diminishes us all. The subjects, who form one aspect of the poetic “other” in Smith’s narratives, all suffer from recent American history. In the process of describing them, the narrator reveals a poetic autobiography in a fashion similar to Whitman, an autobiographical narrative that unifies the poet with his audience and helps the poetic “other” of the audience heal from the self-inflicted wounds of history.
Let us being by examining a poem concerned with what might be described as a national, if not transcendental, form of grief. “Devotion Dub,” for example, begins in a historical moment that refuses to be metaphorical:
After the jets crashed into the buildings and the buildings
came down without my figures of speech and the people I knew
died with lipsticks in their purses and lottery tickets in their pockets
I walked the slave paths of Alabama . . .
Somehow the inhumanity of slavery appears in the narrator’s mind, as he recollects 9/11, the ways people find to hurt each other becoming remarkably similar. “Open up my hearts and there are twenty-six dead today—I don’t know their names in Arabic.” In the poetic outcry of this poem lies a transcendental heart of all sufferers, which the narrator needs the television to express: “I waited for the paddles to be pressed against my hearts by CNN.” This is not simply the poet’s own heart, but the greater poetic heart that needs to be brought back to life by the televised grief expressed about the event. Moreover, this grief is unquestionably a poetic grief:
Between the trees
and the lighted room, a woman sits at an upstairs window. Stressed,
unstressed, which is it? The answer is unstressed, stressed. Vision,
the syntax of everything. She’s either the light’s opus or one
of the beats of one of my hearts.
As we noticed with the metaphor of the heart, this shared grief is poetic, not simply because it is metered, but also because it is transcendental or at least larger than the particular. Like the link between slavery and 9/11, this grief is also poetic because the separate events over time become transcendental, too, solidified in one moment of human suffering:
Memory forgives itself for the hearts’
atrocities, the axes the hearts flourished as they hacked their way
through the thicket, south, then north. Now the surge.
Now the terror. Now everyplace I see is somewhere else.
Time, space, history, emotion all become unified through the poetic movement, the stream of consciousness mediation. In that way Smith’s poetic style profoundly becomes Smith’s poetic meaning.
The theme evoked by 9/11 maintains a painful consistency in the early poems of this collection. We saw in “Devotion Dub” that grief was transcendental, but in war loss can become particular without being known. In response to the Spanish question, “¿Como Estas?” the narrator of “Devotion: New York, July,” responds, “Estas brutal.” At first, the brutality seems to refer simply to the heat, later to burning and childbirth: “The body is postpartum in shimmers / of tar and carbon.” Finally, the brutality of this poem is shifted onto a you, who seems larger than life:
You wanted sugar?
You wanted power? You wanted from the blood clot of another
However, the brutality assumes a local habitation if not a name by the end of the poem: “From al-Mansur, I took some shrapnel here and here. / On my kneepads I wrote my blood type in big red letters.” What is the relationship between the narrator and the “I” who wrote his blood type on his kneepad? Is this simply a poetic “I” to counter the unified “you,” who wanted both sugar and power? Certainly, the “I” is particular. One person is dying but the national heart is diminished by his death.
“Devotion: Fort Drum” becomes a little more personal, as here the narrator knows the people who must serve in the war. Fort Drum is the home of the 10th Mountain Division, which was deployed to Afghanistan soon after 9/11 and in 2004 to Iraq. In this poem, the narrator is a coach and seems connected to all who enter the fight he did not prepare them for:
I made the children run and stop. I made them watery and sincere.
I made them chase balls like pups and told them a taller, faster man/
woman would have had it. I told them to defend themselves,
duck, dodge, fake, bluff, faint, act, fool.
The poet teaches people to defend themselves, even dishonestly, but the army teaches them something else:
to juvenile, to juco, to father’s business or Jesus, went off
to Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division where they learned
Loyalty, Respect, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage—
what I did not teach them.
Here the sufferers of the wars we have all watched are closer to the poet than the national but more distant than the personal. However, the poet is quite sure that what hurts these young people is specifically cultural: “The two theaters of the same American brain that monsters / nightmare and character, fever and power, martyrs / belief.” The image of suffering makes the poet dream of World War I:
I dreamed I was in the mud
of a day after rain in October and the children were romping
and next to me was a stern man with a German name concerned
with loss. I crawled forward in a field of crosses.
This poetic narrative of self gradually brings us closer to the emotional core of the narrator, as the he responds to a poetic “other” who has a tighter and tighter bond with him. We saw that in “Devotion: Dub” the poet considered the transcendental. In “Devotion: New York, July,” the poet gets a little more personal by interacting with an “I” who is not a group but not particular enough to be known. In “Devotion: Fort Drum,” we get warmer, for here he interacts with the personal in the form of his students. However, in “Devotion: The Burnt Over District,” we get profoundly closer to the narrator, as he now confronts the familial. In this dramatic monologue, the narrator addresses a “we” about “the kid.” The “we” seems to include a wife, and the “kid” appears to be their child.
And now the boy’s an angelic eighteen days or six thousand years,
as he leaves to serve. He did what we told him: blocked for punts—
no one likes to block for punts—and when his friends crashed
the truck in a ditch, he waited for the cops and took the rap,
nice kid . . .
Now, the child who goes to serve is not an unknowable “I,” nor is he a known but safely distant student; instead he is the narrator’s son, and like the rest of us, he suffers:
He was not meant to be
the indwelling beauty of things and surely he was not meant to be
the wind in Iraq with three others in his division and become
the abstract shape of a god formed from a blood clot.
The shape of human sacrifice is a blood clot cooled by the wind in Iraq.
In Devotions Smith has assumed a number of poetic positions to walk his audience through the meaning of their sufferings during the last decade. He has shown us what it means to watch the death of someone we don’t know, someone we do, and someone from our own families. He has shown us the individual shape of grief as well as the personal, and in all cases of loss, his universal heart diminished–even if he did not know their names in Arabic, even if the loss occurred in a past he could not have experienced but understands nevertheless. I do not know the shape of Smith’s own autobiography, but I am not altogether sure it matters. He has quite straightforwardly announced the kind of poetic work these Devotions are meant to be doing. Poetry is not history, after all, and all autobiography, especially poetic autobiography, becomes fictional the moment it is created. Poetry may not be history but it is close to it. When Aristotle put poetry between history and philosophy, he meant that history should be negotiating between the ideal and the real. Smith accomplishes this task by mediating on loss that moves between the transcendental and the particular to help us all with degrees of grief. Smith told us that his work would be both sweet and useful. The usefulness is to help us grieve, as well as to help us recognize how we create our own need to grieve; the sweetness is to create a poetic style that unites us in our suffering.
Doug Rutledge has PhD in English from the University of Chicago and an MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University. He is the editor of Ceremony and Text in the Renaissance, published by the University of Delaware Press. He is the author of The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away (Abdi Roble Photographer) published by the University of Minnesota Press. His essay, “Visibile Parlare: Ekphrastic Images in the Poetry of Angie Estes,” is soon to be published in Ekphrasis in American Poetry: the Colonial Period to the 21st Century (Cambridge Scholars Press). In addition his work has either recently appeared or will soon appear in Southwestern American Literature, Third Coast, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Common Ground Review, Jabberwock Review, River Teeth, and the Asheville Poetry Review.