A Feature Review of
Above Ground: Poems
Reviewed by Katie Karnehm-Esh
I finished Clint Smith’s Above Ground the first time in a tent in Canyonlands National Park while a thunderstorm tried to blow us into the canyon below. As I braced the wall of the tent with my foot, I read about Smith dressing his son up in a hot dog costume for Halloween, about drones and civilian air strikes, about dancing with his son in the grocery store. After the storm, when the stars were the clearest I have ever seen them, I read poems about the Andromeda Galaxy, and cicadas, and questions about dinosaurs. Sometimes, as the opening poem reminds us, these wonders and horrors happen all at once: “The redwoods are on fire in California. A flood submerges a neigh-/borhood that sat quiet on the coast for three centuries. A child/takes their first steps and tumbles into a father’s arms.”
Throughout Above Ground, Smith approaches his subject matter and each poem with an awareness of the connections in our world, for, “The/river that gives us water to drink is the same one that might wash/us away.” Maybe because I was in the desert, water was on my mind; to me each of Smith’s poems was a clear drop of water, written with an attention to language and structure that both revealed and complicated its subject.
While primarily a poet, Smith is well-known for his 2021 nonfiction book How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With The History of Slavery Across America. In this new collection, Smith explores themes revolving around family, parenthood, and current social, political, and climate issues, as well as issues of race. Readers should be prepared to be unsettled by poems about George Floyd, police violence, and the Whitney Plantation. His subject matter is both very personal, as in his poems about becoming a father, as well as social and political: black maternal care, guns, drones, legacy, Hurricane Katrina, and our often terrifying climate.
Smith’s poetry reads with an almost journalistic clarity that continually reminded me of How the Word is Passed. This is not to say the poems are simple, for almost none of the poems take a predictable turn. Rather, they seem to emerge from two great veins of American poetry: the domestic poem (as in his poems on bath time, making French Toast, and Facetiming his wife’s pregnant belly) and the spoken word poem (as in “For Willie Francis, the First Known Person to Survive an Execution by Electric Chair, 1947”, “The Drone”, and “The Gun”). In both these genres, the audience needs clarity and precise language, which Smith masters. Sometimes the titles announce the poem’s direction (“Ode to the Double Stroller”) and sometimes the lines do, as here in “The Great Escape”: “The first time we bought a baby monitor I was reluctant/to set it up.” The poem reads like a friend telling you a story about the baby monitor, which turns into a fanciful account of the toddler’s bedtime plot to escape.
In a more political poem, “The New York Times Reports that 200 Civilians Have Just Been Killed by U.S. Military Airstrikes,” Smith writes of a man on television calling the tragedy “unfortunate yet inevitable collateral damage.” But Smith knows this man has a wife and children, “and I can’t imagine he would call it inevitable/if her body were pulled from an implosion of rubble.” As a reader, I think I know where the poem is going—what if that was our loved one? However, Smith doesn’t tell us to be outraged by these deaths, but to ask ourselves why we think other people deserve to die and we don’t. “I’m not sure what it means for us,” he writes, “not to be the one to fire the bullet/but to behave as if the bullet always belonged/ in that chest, and not our own.” I have been told hundreds of times to feel bad about civilian deaths at the hands of the US military. This was the first time I’ve ever felt that bullet come near my own heart.
The risk of an extremely accessible poem is obviousness, or a descent into cliché. Fortunately, Smith’s crafting of language and structure makes the straightforward poem sing, dance, and sometimes, compel from the page. In “For Willie Francis”, Smith’s horrifying description of a black teenager who survives electrocution, the terse, two-syllable iamb rhythm does much of the poem’s work: “Fifteen/Black boy/Tied down. Both arms. One leg.” Evoking Melvin Dixon’s “Heartbeats”, the heartbeat rhythm here fills in the gaps between Smith’s spare vocabulary and the events of the story. Throughout the volume, Smith uses poetic forms such the prose poem, the sonnet, and the ode to similar effect. He also uses lines (“For Willie Francis . . .”) spacing (“The Gun”) and caesura (“After the Storm, They Attempted to Identify the Bodies”) to craft a reading of the piece. In the poems mentioned above, the more horrifying and difficult the content, the more deliberately he uses line and form to guide the poem.
If the risk of an accessible poem is cliché, it is doubly so in a poem about unspeakable topics. Words fail when we talk about death by air strike, or flood, or a doctor’s incompetence. We run out of words when trying to describe how much we love our children and partners, and we certainly lose all grasp of language when trying to talk about the most intricate and magnificent elements of the natural world. Smith seems to never let these risks stop him from trying to find the best words he can, and then resisting or subverting every cliché that would tempt a lesser poet.
In two poems, “Nomenclature” and “Punctuation”, Smith uses this failure of language to show how the smallest shift in words can change a truth. In “Punctuation” he rewrites lines with slightly differing punctuation: “I went to the store filled with water/I went to the store, filled with water.” In “Nomenclature,” his wife’s mother tries to teach him a word in Igbo, n’anya, which can either mean sight or love. Depending on how she says the word, she might be saying “I cannot remember the sight of my village” or “I cannot remember the love of my village.” In both of these poems, what can’t be said, or said only in part, fills the white spaces on the page. “I am trying to be honest with myself,” he writes, “or/I am trying to be honest with you.” The strength of this volume is that Smith appears to always be honest with us.
Early in the collection, in the poem “By Chance,” Smith asks what might be the thesis of the volume: what is the difference between science and a miracle, and how do we find the difference? In the final poem, “Look at That Pond,” Smith seems to answer himself with an invitation to wonder: “Look at the fish swimming under its silver surface. Look how the/surface shimmers like sound. Look how the fish follow one another,/ how their bodies bend like strings of a harp.” He writes of the plants guarding the pond, the swamp the pond will become, the children of the future who will visit it, and the plankton that create the oxygen that keep us all, miraculously, alive. Smith was writing about a pond, but in my tent in the desert I thought of the water pockets in the sandstone, divots in the rock where water pooled long enough to keep desert mammals alive and allow colonies of tadpole shrimp to breed and bury eggs for another wet season. “You come from the parachute that didn’t open then did,” Smith tells his son in “By Chance.” Look at all this improbable survival, his poems remind us. Call it luck, or divine intervention, or wonder that keeps us going. “My life is made possible by trillions of tiny mysteries,” Smith writes. “I exist/because of so many things I’ll never see.”
Katie Karnehm-Esh earned her MA and PhD in creative writing at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and currently teaches English at Indiana Wesleyan University. Her writing interests include travel, yoga, holistic health, and forgiveness.
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