Poetry as “Syndrome and Song” in Bruce Smith’s Devotions
Smith, Bruce, Devotions: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
While reading Bruce Smith’s beautiful and provocative sixth book of poems, Devotions, one of the things that became clear for me about two-thirds of the way in, was how much Devotions is a book, in the sense that Jack Spicer famously emphasized. Spicer’s commitment to the book form took him to the extreme of declaring that “there are no single poems,” a stance with which I disagree and a notion of which Smith’s poems disabuse us–there are many great, single poems in this book. Nonetheless, Spicer’s emphasis on the book as a single unit does help emphasize the book as a form that is absolutely distinct from both the single poem and the poetry collection, or even the “project.” The title of Smith’s book and its arrangement–each poem is titled “Devotion: Title”–suggests coherence, but the poems themselves move the manuscript beyond the bounds of a “project” to construct a “book” by doing what Spicer asked poems to do in that form: they “echo and re-echo against each other” and “create resonances” that allow an articulated world and consciousness to emerge that the reader can get to know and hang out in. Titling the book Devotions suggests that it be considered like a book of daily prayers that one might turn open to any page on any given day. But I think the poems work best when, to use Spicer’s other term for “the book,” they are read as a “serial poem.” The advantage of looking at Devotions as a book is that one is able to trace certain movements and motifs that take place over the course of its eighty-eight pages of fifty-eight poems.
There are four poems that stand out for me as the best in the book: “Devotion: High School,” “Devotion: Red Roof Inn,” “Devotion: The Republic,” and “Devotion: Race Traitor.” They appear in that order–the first two toward the beginning, the last two toward the end. As single poems, they each hold their own and then some. But as part of the book, Devotions, they are like anchor points that the other poems in the book “echo and re-echo against.” They establish the persona of the poet who authors this book as a careful observer of his world, a chronicler of his age and his country, and his own journey from childhood to fatherhood, coming to terms with what he has seen and felt walking through it all.
In “Devotion: High School,” the poet is a generous observer of 21st century youth. He demonstrates an incredible ability to get inside the stuff of their internal and external lives, while staying true to the distance of his own position (he has been through this before in his own time, he is an adult now, etc). The poem takes place in shop class, “boys (mostly).”
… They hammer out a loud first
person. They like the noise, what noise? And they like the fire, swords
beat into swords. They want sugars (mostly), and oceans and orders
or the opposite, a magic that will spring them from detention.
Wanting and thinking and making make for a muchness felt
as something missing.
… Busy and clever and industrious the world
and noisy with lust and exhaust. Because they are instructed loudly
and told to wise up and no handguns or cell phones they become wordless
(mostly) except for the recitative of the engines and the drums in their ears.
Because it will end in June, they will make it endless. They will alter
the mufflers. They will modify the fenders and the first person.
Because somebody knows somebody who lost a finger to the saw,
they will be unable to imagine more than 9 deaths. …
This vivid picture of boys with headphones (“In their ears / emo and cash flow”), wrapped up in their own dramas, the world beyond the first person illegible, so that “The Tutsis / The Armenians, the Jews will be unimaginable,” manages to elicit our empathy as readers, while allowing us to recognize some of social and political problems embedded there: Gender roles stubbornly abound, the products of education pollute the environment (The boys “vent the teethings of the band saw on wood / and the filings of sheet metal through the industrial exhaust fan in to the Mid- / west. Silvers the lilacs. Pollinates the lakes”), 21st century violence and consumer technology shapes the boundaries of the educational setting (“no handguns or cell phones “), and history is obscured to the souls who will soon be making history (“Because they disbelieve the world, they must make it again and again.”) This poem comes back to mind later in the book when one reads “Devotion: Active Shooter Protocol,” a poem ostensibly about a school shooting:
… No time for arias in the secured area
which is what the elementary, vocational, arts magnet, junior high
school is now, locked down, and just yesterday it was dance
and African drumming and poetry with Mrs. G, who called it
the center of consciousness for the friable universe. The rescue
is no rope and ransom. We make a diamond, first one, then two,
then one. It moves forward as it ignores the hall made slippery
with blood. The music that boy listened to made between his ears
a horror. I blame the art. I blame the law. We’re all the deputies
of his dream. …
The relation between these two poems (they are placed with 50+ pages of poetry between them) is the synchronic aspect of the contemporary syndrome that Smith handles so expertly. In “Devotion: Flight,” Smith calls poetry “that syndrome and song,” which makes sense, since the poems in this book are concerned very much with the vast display of synchronic time and with song as history–musical references, especially jazz, abound. While some school children work innocently in shop class where they make “a table or a footstool or a stash box or a sword or a cutting board / in the shape of a whale,” others are being held hostage by a classmate and dying in a failed rescue. Still other children who the poet once coached “to chase balls like pups,” are shipped off to war, as in “Devotion: Fort Drum,” a poem that finds its strongest resonance in “Devotion: Baseball,” which takes us back in history to the poet’s own experience of a country fighting wars overseas during his Vietnam draft-age years:
… We scratched our names in dirt.
We wiped our hands on our shirts. As much as we wanted to look good,
we were the bullies of our childhood sliding, cleats up at Juan or Bob
with the fury of the psychopath, Ty Cobb …
Drafted or matriculated? In a one run game I missed the cut-off man.
Boys my age were dying in Khe Sanh.
This is a book rich in contemporary and historical references, ranging from politics to historical events to popular culture. These allusions operate not as clever time-markings or mere gestures of “relevance” but as the organic and necessary lexicon of a sensitive, engaged citizen of the world. Such that phrases like “We wanted it quiet or we wanted Katrina” (“Devotion: Thirst Reduction”) and “thank Bush for jails” (“Devotion: Changeling”) don’t stand out on the page as provocative, but read as just the right phrase for that line.
Devotions is in one sense a travelogue of the U.S. The Red Roof Inn is a recurring motif that suggests travel. In “Devotion: Al Green,” the poet rides the Greyhound bus, “watching the twitchy things of the North give way / to the sticky, bloodshot things of the South.” At one point, we are in New York City, then in central New York, then Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and back north to Pennsylvania. The spirit of Whitman is strong here, both for the project of painting a portrait of the U.S., and for his enthusiasm for his object. “Devotion: Red Roof Inn” is a passionate ars poetica that opens with the directive, “Write like a lover” and closes with “Write like you’ve lost your belongings” two rules of composition that describe Smith’s approach to the various portraits that appear in the book. “Write like a lover” suggests that one look upon one’s subject with attention to its beauty, to the particular characteristics that make it meaningful and vivid to its beholder. Even when Smith looks upon those aspects of this world that are menacing , he is looking for what makes it meaningful, staking a claim perhaps that there is beauty somewhere in this mess. In “Devotion: Futurismo,” a poem that I understand to be mourning the loss of a family pet by meditating on that 20th century art movement and the nature of beauty, he offers,
… Beauty’s neither
here nor there but deadly and Senor’s ashes still not scattered
but carried twice to new cities, X-rayed and checked through airports.
“Organs?” “No, ashes.”
… I think
halfway between a wheelbarrow of dirt and a facsimile machine,
is beauty. I think it’s a horse that moves between skin and the unseen.
By constantly mixing the quotidian with the historical and the personal with the cultural in this way, Smith creates an intimacy that makes the poet feel like a lover both to the world he observes, records and reflects on, and to the reader. This is helped by a palpable vulnerability one senses in these poems. “Write like you’ve lost your belongings” means writes like you have nothing left to lose, like you will not be defined by the things that travel with you. If “The familiar doesn’t travel well. / The soul doesn’t travel well. Poetry spoils,” then you have to write like you aren’t going anywhere. And Smith does just that. There is a sense of immediacy and urgency in these poems that is convincing and that motivates one to read on attentively, enthralled as the poet is. The poem suggests, “Write like you’re in thrall,” a directive the poet follows: “The Red Roof Inn hath me in thrall.” In “Devotion: The Republic,” the poet beholds his newborn baby, Claire, and reflecting on the uneasiness of raising a child amid the current state of affairs, finds himself inspired rather than dejected, for “How can we look at the smirk on your face / and the ten toes and not think about another way of thinking?” He calls for “the end / of a poetry that cries against Cheney who is strangely somebody / with a heart as baby Claire is truly somebody with a heart only cuter / in her pink hat and closer to feeling mothered, that particular immensity / that records the body of evidence of what it felt like to be delivered / into and from the glorious, unnamed harm of America.” Claire’s freshness motivates a certain peace-making, but the poet remains historically aware enough to gently challenge that impulse and its ultimate meaning:
So I helped with the late night feeding, and when Claire was asleep,
I went to sleep and dreamed in a shameless way that I had breakfast
with the V.P., milk and sweet rolls, and I listened to him and
he listened to me, our remorse was great, our remorse was a trumpet,
as I listened to him and we forgave each other
not that it was ours to forgive.
This poem seems to come as an answer to the two poems that precede it–”Devotion: Infant Joy” and “Devotion: Infant Sorrow”–in which an accusatory “you” dominates (“Not so fast, you tall breathing places,” “I don’t believe you after 9/11,” “Don’t even try / to console me you bulldozers, you Zambonis,” “Basta with your pronouns,” “You masses, you hisses, I am not your diction,” “you bigger things”), expressing the rage one might imagine a newborn to feel for having been “delivered / into and from the glorious, unnamed harm of America.” The ending of “Devotion: The Republic” does not obscure that rage for the sake of forgiveness, yet recognizes that one can and should continue to dream of something at least different, if not better. In “Devotion: Race Traitor,” Smith reflects on being born and raised in white culture, surrounded by a black culture that spoke deeply to him through the black and white television of his childhood in Philadelphia: “the Browns: Jim and James, made my skin / itch and I scratched and watched them on TV where they were beamed / to me in small, mutant grayscale flames.” And then coming to terms with “the unforeseen / consequence of being not black, not red, not tinted much on the grayscale / not all that happy, agitated enough to cause a crack in the deeded country / and the interior nation ad I would do nothing for my skin / but shed …” Race has a strong presence in this book, and leading up to “Devotion: Race Traitor,” one is struck by a certain ambiguity and sensitivity about the poet’s race. It wasn’t until this poem that I was confident that Smith was in fact white, as he described the troubled relationship to this fact that he held:
… I resisted the men I was given: papas, nadas
jurors, the potentate of this, the secretary of that, my white ideology,
which was vaguely a belief, vaguely a machine that worked for me,
smokeless, well riveted, given to entropy and sadness and William James
and all the lumas of much too much experience. …
He eloquently describes the experience of being caught between a culture that he was supposed to inherit because of the pigment and privilege of his skin and a culture that called to his soul despite circumstances but that he could not claim:
… and Solomon Burke from his throne sang and I sang
along in private, because I could not join but I could not remain
the same, and the singing was the refusing subtly, subtly refusing.
The poem documents an important aspect of the poet’s autobiography, but it also speaks to the larger issue of U.S. history. I am reminded of a recent comment made by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, a white professor of African-American history at Yale University, who wrote in response to a New York Times book review, “White people are drawn to this history because American history is African-American history. One cannot understand the American experience unless one starts with the black American experience.”
I would recommend any number of poems from Devotions to someone looking for a good poem to read, but I would urge everyone to read the book Devotions for the experience of learning something important about the relationship between poetry and history and that poetry can be political without succumbing to righteousness, demagoguery, or punditry. Smith reminds us that the role of the artist is to be an engaged and enraged citizen who can put up a mirror and show us where and who we are, and Devotions offers us a stirring “syndrome and song” of the U.S.
Reviewed by Adra Raine
Adra Raine is a Ph.D. student in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is studying 20th century American literature and literary theory.