April 16th, 2008
Review by Gary Charles Wilkens (email)
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I am a classmate and personal friend of Erin Elizabeth Smith's, and think she is a lovely person in several senses of the word "lovely". I mention this because "lovely" is an apt description of the poems in The Fear of Being Found, her first book. I don't mean the dissmissive "lovely," either, like "nice." I mean lovely in a way I wish a lot more of contemporary poetry was, a real silky smooth gorgeous pleasure to read. These quiet, breathy lyrics, even when in the voice of a wronged woman cursing men, as in Macha Speaks of Her Children or dealing with an emotionally absent father, as in On Not Speaking to My Father for a Third Year, are sexy and satisfying. They are joys to read aloud, assuming you can do it in a quiet room with a lover or intimate friends.
This style comes about because Smith is a past master of a voice I hearby christen the Pillow Whisper. To see what I mean, speak these lines form the book's opener, The Mulberry Trees:
These were not my first loves--
there were the tart oranges from my father's garden,
the neighbor's two-story sunflower,
a red rat snake asleep in the piano.
All things can be sudden.
Backyard maples sprung red with season.
The meadowsweet sunken to silence.
A division of geese coaxing worms from the earth.
The endstopping, the short lines, the alliteration, on "s" especially, the image-image-statement style, make this poem and many others in this book like intimate confessions. You cannot shout these poems, but they lend themselves to reverie and interior landscaping.
Other obvious descriptors that have to be dealt with in Smith's poetry are "feminine" and "feminist." Surving a Biblical Flood, Sin (Storm): A Pantoum, and the aforementioned Macha are all women adressing men or dealing with the effects of male lust, neglect or forgetfulness. The Pillow Whisper in these poems radiates strength and the will to survive:
You are dead, and I shine. I shine
like an omen, like a violin in the dark,
a fist of heart striking its cage.
You are dead, and I shine.
I would have been nothing if you said my name.
Yes, these are feminist poems, in the differentiated-from-a-doormat sense. And feminine ones in the sense that they are subsumed within the female body and mind, such as when the speaker addresses herself in Love Song for Myself:
Yeah, I called you lots of names.
Sabotaged your senior prom, sending you with a boy
who would surely love you if you asked.
And the first time, in the Travelodge,
when you bled like new
road kill, I laughed, knowing you'd hold your breath
each time you passed the place, like it was a graveyard,
like you'd breathe in your own hungering soul.
But things change. By twenty you were pretty hot
crossing and uncrossing your legs
for a boy you had no intention of fucking.
There is tremendous muscularity in these lines, but they are sleek female muscles. And I would argue there is a gut-deep honesty here that male poets have a hard time reaching. Smith reaches into that place in almost every poem, and the effects will leave you drained but wanting more.
Indeed, the temptation in reviewing Smith is quoting too much. Almost every poem merits comment, but there's one more I'd like to highlight, the heartbreaking Love Song for Leaving:
I almost tell the man that sleeps against me
I love you
though I have sworn I would not
again. That I would only say
what guts him. He is crying out. In the morning
he says he was eaten
by a man who looked like him,
meaner, and full of
I start to tell him about the place
that makes this better,
but it is carnivorous. It is fat.
I have touched it
and curled back.
This sympathy for the man really appeals to this reviewer. You have heard emotional pain before. Smith makes it hurt again, and makes you like it.
If the collection has a weakness, it's that after the tenth poem about difficult intimacy, however skillfully they are handled, you want Smith to say something else. Shout, tell a joke, sing a song, play Three Card Monty. Smith is a poet formed up north/midwest, living in the south, and several poems concern this, like How to Escape the South. Perhaps more geography, rather than two poems with "Hands" and "Divorce" in the title. This sameness of subject and tone will not bother you while you are reading The Fear of Being Found, however, and buying this book and savouring it is something you should do today.
Gary Charles Wilkens, who has been a teacher of composition and literature, is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at The Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. He was the winner of the 2006 Texas Review Breakthrough Poetry Prize for his first book, The Red Light Was My Mind, and also a finalist for the 2006 Elinor-Benedict-Prize. His is a co-founder and an assistant editor of The Externalist, and his poems have appeared in The Texas Review, The Prague Revue, The Yellow Medicine Review, The Cortland Review, the Adirondack Review and MiPOesias. (www.gcwilkens.com)