The OF Blog: 2011 National Book Award poetry nominee: Bruce Smith, Devotions

Saturday, November 12, 2011

2011 National Book Award poetry nominee: Bruce Smith, Devotions

I backed away from the revolving door to let the man
stir himself in.  He looked like he had served two-thirds of his time,
(I had worked at Lewisburg.  I knew an ex-con
when I saw one) – and now was on parole, careful to defer to the pushy,
the striving, the vaulting who have inherited the earth since his send up
for his crimes.  He had been, in my mind, among the slightly more vicious,
fraudulent, and unruly, and thank Bush for jails.
quoted from "Devotion:  Changeling" (p. 39)

Bruce Smith's sixth poetry collection, Devotions, is replete with poems such as "Devotion:  Changeling."  These opening lines serve to paint a vivid picture of a drifter perhaps, someone who has seen rough times and whose "look" is that of a released criminal who approaches the world and its people in a way different from those who are sitting comfortably in their chairs, reading this short review, perhaps after thinking of their jobs or their studies or something that seems of paramount interest to them.  Yet there are questions overlaying the text here.  Who is the narrator?  How does s/he know what to look for when looking at a possible ex-con?  How is that person's judgment, of the "slightly more vicious,/fradulent, and unruly, and thank Bush for jails," come into play here?  The tone is that of someone who has working knowledge of criminals and yet is not one him/herself (I waver on the possible genders of this narrator, as male and female narrators very likely could approach this in different ways, even when using the same words).  Then I read on:

... I looked up at him
who was looking at me, a man my age, my changeling, with a face
come into the face he deserved at sixty, a felonious face shadowed there,
inside the building and wearing clothes I once wore, but shabbier, dingier,
the worse for wear, and around him a caged halo like submarine creatures
have in dense refracted light.

Opinions shift.  Certainly a male now and one has his own past issues.  A changeling, someone who could have been that narrator, yet who now is seen as a fraud, one who is "shabbier" and "the worse for wear," certainly not what the narrator himself has come to be.  Still mysteries to be resolved, such as the "devotion" the narrator's father had (stated to be an elementary school teacher) to being small in the world and how this contrasts with the changeling's hardened ex-con view of the world around.

"Devotion:  Changeling" is but one of about 60 poems that appear in Devotions.  The majority of these poems have a similar free verse structure, where the narrators muse and reflect on their lives, their (and others) devotions to things such as baseball games, car wrecks, dusk, nature, the city of Syracuse (Smith is a professor there), and the Midrash, just to name a few of the topics (and devotions) that he explores.  It is easy to get lost in reflections on that maddening game of baseball, which Smith captures so eloquently in "Devotion:  Baseball":

Pinetar, a sluice of tobacco, sunflower seeds, and juju.
Lena Blackburne rubbing mud, gum, the glues and salves
for doing things fairly – one out of three
swipes at the ball and a flare to right, a dying quail, a 3-
2 change popped up with a shitfuck, handcuffed, tomahawked
the high hard stuff or took a backwards K when made to look ugly
as we often were:  Humility 3 Arrogance 1 after seven innings.

In "Devotion:  Changeling," I had only a vague, reflecting musing on the poem's message, but here in "Devotion:  Baseball," having grown up in a baseball-loving family (and having suffered miserably for three years from 9-11 playing it before realizing that a bad right eye kept me from seeing the ball's rotation until it was too late to connect sweetly), something emotional clicks.  I can not just visualize the action, but I am reacting to it, I am thinking of the "please, oh please God, let Gibson on his two bad knees be able to get a hit off of Eckserley" back in October 1988 and the jubilance when he hit that memorable pinch-hit homerun.  Smith captures the triumphs of pitfalls of that cruel game in just a few lines.  "Humility 3 Arrogance 1 after seven innings" – so true.

The other poems are similar in that they take our musings, our vague and sometimes disjointed dreams and yearnings, and they present them in free verse.  Smith's poems are almost uniformly evocative and they improve upon multiple re-readings.  Devotions will be a collection that I will revisit in the years to come.  Certainly worthy of its nomination for the 2011 National Book Award.

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