“That Beauty in the Trees”
Poems by Ron Smith
116 pp. Louisiana State University Press, April 19, 2023. $19.95
In his latest collection, Ron Smith wrestles with the essential burden of poetry: to communicate an experience of what you cannot attach words to. As one speaker asks, “Why can’t we feel this all the time, whatever it is?” This is something like “That Beauty in the Trees,” a phrase that plays many parts: the title of Smith’s fourth book in Louisiana State University Press’s Southern Messenger Series, the title of the book’s final poem, and the implicit subject of the book itself. Smith has served as the Poet Laureate of Virginia (2012-2014), writer-in-residence at St. Christopher’s School, and instructor at the University of Richmond. His accolades include Southern Poetry Review’s Guy Owen Award, Poetry Northwest’s Theodore Roethke Prize, and the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize.
Smith accesses the unspeakable through artwork, memory, and place. These ekphrastic, historical, and travel poems are typical of his other collections, including “Moon Road” (LSU Press, 2007), “Its Ghostly Workshop” (LSU Press, 2013), and “The Humility of the Brutes” (LSU Press, 2017). However, here Smith relies heavily upon meta-commentary to process these encounters with beauty. Such reflections harmonize the extraordinary and the ordinary. For instance, the ekphrastic “Franz Kline’s Zinc Yellow (1959)” begins:
Ah! My high school’s
colors, gold and black, . . .
extremes not too far
from black and white.
“Everthang’s not black and white,”
teachers, parents loved
to say . . .
Though these lines are colloquial, their origin is dense. They are the culmination of Smith’s childhood playing football in Georgia, his education in modern art and literature, and his life in Virginia (the painting is held at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk). Even without knowing Smith’s biography, readers recognize his reaction to the painting as one that turns something strange into something intimate, instantiating the painting’s simple form and challenging significance.
“Founder” takes up another Virginia resident in a satirical trilogy about America’s toothless icon, George Washington. The poem’s sections explore Washington’s identities as “Suitor,” “Master,” and “Public Servant, Country Squire.” In the first, Martha struggles to see her admirer as “Ulysses / among the Phaeacians” when he appears to be a “grandly self-conscious / militia colonel who had returned / from Barbados scarred by the pox.” Then in “Master,” Smith versifies Washington’s letter to a ship’s captain regarding the sale of a “Rogue & Runaway” named Tom:
in return for . . .
One Hdh of best Molasses
One Ditto of best Rum
One barrel of Lymes—if good and Cheap . . .
And the residue, much or little,
in good old Spirits.
Finally, the third section offers a meta-discourse on scholarship, accusing it of treating historical figures as impersonal objects of study rather than as human beings:
Wiencek never mentions slave teeth
in An Imperfect God, a book I recommend if
you think all slavers were the same . . .
[Paid 6 Pounds 2 Shillings to Negroes for 9 Teeth (George
Washington’s Ledger B, 8 May 1784, Library of Congress)]
Scholar Kathryn Gehred writes (shaped a bit
here—but not, I hope, distorted):
As [our] first president,
Washington set the standard for leadership
and the goals of [our] brand-new country . . .
The issue is the source of Washington’s teeth. Did he pay Black people for their own teeth, for other people’s teeth, or for false wooden teeth? Additionally, were those people enslaved or free? Smith cannot answer these questions any better than Wiencek, Gehred, or Washington’s dead and decayed corpse. But he can make sure we critique our own reactions to Washington and think about the implications of having him as our first president, a kind of reflection better suited to poetry than to scholarship. Written in the mode of Pound’s “Cantos,” “Founder” is one of Smith’s finest.
No review of Smith would be complete without mentioning a poem about his beloved Italy. Nominated by Susann Cokal of Broad Street for a Pushcart Prize, “Volterra” offers a tour of an ancient Etruscan city led by an Italian guide who is “a dead ringer for that girl in Tallahassee / forty years before.” We begin at “the walls [falling away] toward the defenseless sea,” proceeding to “‘Teatro Romano—theater—the curtain rolled up / in low, thanks to a complex system of telescopes.’” Our guide then directs us toward “‘Baldia / Camaldolese, assembled 1030 and surely abandoned / by the monks in the last century for fear the building / will collapse . . .’” Suffering from a hangover from “all the week’s Negronis,” we conclude our visit at the “‘Pinacoteca and Civic Museum’” where we are reprimanded “‘not to touch’” “‘the masterpiece of the Tuscan man- / nerism, the admirable “Deposition” of Giovanni Battista di / Jacopo . . . (em, 1494-1540).’”
But I think my favorite of Smith’s Italian verses is “The Assisi Poem, Finally,” which recounts the theft of a bag containing “[s]ix months of poems” in “one of Rome’s most / prosaic neighborhoods, gone . . . / Gehen, gaan, gān, andato.” Or maybe I am more fond of “Rome/Glasgow: Early March” where the speaker encounters Scottish rugby fans in the eternal city before and after their team’s loss to the Italian “wine-sippers,” concluding with a surprising allusion to Keats’ famous faux-pas: “Celts / gulping whiskey, gazing round with wild surmise, silent, / flabbergasted, high and not at all dry upon what might / just well have been a peak in Darien.”
Poems on the modernist team of H.D., William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound, on World War II and baseball, and on Brancusi and Dalí round out this encyclopedic collection that deserves a prominent place among poetic Americana. Reading “That Beauty in the Trees” feels much like antiquing, where each eclectic curiosity hiding on the next page surprises you, where even the most mundane holds at least a nostalgic value. Among the repurposed wares lie radiant, priceless artifacts whose beauty Smith can only talk around, share indirectly, and describe as a momentary feeling, “whatever it is.”
J. Rhett Forman is a lecturer at Tarleton State University. His work has recently appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, Signal Mountain, Borderlands, West Branch, Talking River, Perceptions, The Round, and anthologies by Clemson University. A Kentucky native, he is a graduate of St. John’s College (Santa Fe), the University of Dallas, and the University of Salamanca. drjrforman.com.