Dave Smith, Looking Up: Poems 2010-2022 (Louisiana State University Press, 2023)
My friendship with Dave Smith began in admiration of his considerable body of fine work. At eighty he is one of the last of a generation of honoured American poets, while at his back are his mentor, the great twentieth-century poet Robert Penn Warren, and the controversial James Dickey, two writers of a Southern sensibility like himself, as well as other admired poets like James Wright and Richard Hugo. Smith’s substantial new collection is an event: the accumulated poetry of a decade, love poems, memories, meditations on age and ill health, as well as observations on current American culture. This is the poetry of experience.
Smith’s method is direct, unflinching. The veteran critic Helen Vendler once wrote of his early poems, ‘His work is that of a man writing dense verse out of hard moments.’ One thinks of the advice from Warren in Smith’s ‘Man Swimming in Home-Dug Pool’: ‘Go to the bottom not touched, touch it. Look up. Push it.’ His poetry has kept faith with ‘hard moments’, yet here there is warmth and accessibility too. He is by turns loving, grateful, regretful, angry and bemused. To me the collection’s excellence lies in Smith’s ability to sustain the atmosphere around a single voice grappling with events past and present.
To illustrate certain themes, let me begin with love. From the opening poem, ‘City Point’ (‘What can it hurt to feel again, to hear love’s tale of aches on dream’s flesh-eating shore?’), ...
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