Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Black Stone

“American Idle”

Black Stone, by Dale Smith (Effing Press, 2007)

One of the many ways that pregnancy and childbirth pull the ordinary quotidian into monstrous and lovely shapes, and compel one “out” into a world unceasingly new is through language—a whole different vocabulary suddenly enters (with everyday ease) one’s household: amniotic fluid, lanugo, linea negra, vernix, bilirubin count. And one thinks one’ll never forget any of it, just as one thinks one’ll never forget the newborn’s particular tiny-mouth’d pout, or the sensation of its first weight, or its clench, or any of it. And of course it slips, some of it remains, most of it goes, replaced by the oncoming versions, a succession of changes, though the intensity—palpability—of that new language acquired is strongest early.

That’s one of the things I think about, reading Dale Smith’s Black Stone, a kind of daybook of prose poems (though some lineate, tufts of verse emerging as if spontaneously, a different way to measure, a sudden finer calibration). Smith writes, in a prefatory note:
I began Black Stone on the first day of the Christian observance of Lent. My second son, Waylon, was born during that period, and I wanted to explore the narrative of days around his birth. The poem ends on Easter, the end of Lent, the day Christ is said to have come back to life on earth. Christ is beautiful, but he cast an extraordinary shadow. I think of that shadow as a kind of stone, and I find it more useful and scary than the sweet piety of the crucified god.
The weightiness of that stone (I love the unspoken connection between “casting a shadow” and “casting a stone” that evidence of passivity become activity, “useful,” fraught, dangerous) is essential: Smith pointedly refuses any manner of Christian high skippiness, any possibility not root’d fiercely and lovingly in the tangible earth. The first piece begins: “Here swims the earth-bound babe, moving day and night.” To dispel any doubt, there’s the D. H. Lawrence provided epigraph:
All that we have, while we live, is life;
and if you don’t live during your life, you are a piece of dung.
What Smith details, with canny accuracy, cleanly, without unnecessary jawing and outburst, is as precise a texture of life in these States in these citizenry-wallop’d ’thousands as I’ve seen. There’s a whole sense of citizens living within fragile self-made tenuous communities, tending one another, trying to comprehend and quell forces larger than themselves. Against a plutocracy pursuant of its own (nefarious, brutal) ends. Here’re two pieces in sequence:
Bright yellow blossoms float on a primrose jasmine’s tangle of foliage. Grey mist turns to light rain. Ground coffee beans and poured hot but not boiling water into a glass canister for good, strong coffee. Suddenly I’m reminded of Hemingway’s relish for sensual details. The taste of food and drink, or the complex social rituals of consumption. He possessed a vivid appetite. And now Hoa says she feels something, surges coming every ten minutes or so. The linea negra separates her belly into two spheres. She inspires me with her lovely, fierce determination. K cries in protest and fear. Outside power lines criss-cross a silver sky. Or perhaps it’s a gunmetal sky there behind a thick range of pecan and hackberry branches. A friend wants to know the names of the tools of our utility grid, much as an amateur ornithologist desires knowledge of birds. She wants the name of each individual wire and bolt. What rocks mix into the asphalt or concrete? Where is metal smelted for our cars, or the screws and nails that keep our houses and furniture together? Do people still even smelt? Smelters the OED calls them. What plastic makes this pen? Which chemicals blacken its ink? And the surges continue. A strong cramping force brings out this earth-bound creature.

Waylon Hart arrived in creamy vernix. Now he sleeps and K plays in bed with Hoa. The rain comes light and then heavy, a day of steady drizzle. 3:52 p.m. he came, crying out before completing his womb exit. Now he’s calm, quietly wrapped in a blanket. He pissed and soiled the sheets with rich black excrement, adjusting as he can to this suddenly new world. Friends came to watch Keaton. Others brought food. Drank a couple of beers. Washed dishes. Made tea. Tended Hoa and Hart. She delivered with full devout courage, to quote a friend, the babe coming quickly. A little pumpkin head with the face of a bruiser. There’s music in the house and it’s dark out. Played with K in his room a while, easing him through the stress of new life—the intrusive awakening coming to him. Swept mud clods off the floor. Took him in the rain for ice cream hoping he would fall asleep. The moon hid behind clouds, sky moving. Quiet now, K resting. Hoa sips tea, looks at me.
Extraordinary sense of interconnectedness, of “right simplicity,” and of human-scaled needs and possibilities. If Hemingway’s clean-burning intensity, that deft clarity (I think of how he’d go hungry, empty-stomach’d, to the Louvre, to see the paintings better) keeps keen Smith’s prose, it may, too, contribute to its understory of combativeness, anger, lament. (I think of that gut-punch line in “The End of Something”—“I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me”—marker for a usual lover’s spat translated into that for a whole damn country’s betrayal.) For there’s something of Hemingway in Smith’s grim examination, under “this gorgeous mundane sludge of wet sky,” of the “unique abstraction: America”:
Living as if under siege, hidden by new purchases. Assaulted by food and gadgets, the rain comes like an acid spray to pull our flesh back. Melt like salted slugs. Shed skin or die, reptilian and cold, and then enter a new world in these forming days. Last night a grackle corpse rotted on a Blockbuster sidewalk, its black neck feathers caught in a strong breeze. It lay inert, decomposing in a neon-reflecting puddle of light.
Or something of Kerouac—he, too, invoked, allow’d an epigraph. And Creeley / Olson exchanges—out of these Smith forges something closes to a declaration of method, (no, “method’s not it either”), a way to proceed daily, a means of continue (the thing a writer needs, not “voice,” not a “project,” not the usual dopey “texts” to “write through,” not some downloadable muck to jiggle about in . . .) Smith writes, figuring it out, responding to Creeley’s own figuring it out (“the oblique: afraid of conclusions: sound: and the oddness”):
By way of the root—or by way of my black coarseness—that negative deposit beneath intent. Clarity, but also a method to relate the conflicting pulses of acceleration and accretion. Maybe method’s not it either. The turning on toward achievement, no goal exact. What can be gained, you get by the radical will in step with the day.
(Elsewhere Smith admits to writing in what Céline call’d the “American style”—“lyrical and confused.” Though, after putting Herakleitos hard on Céline’s heels, “The untrained mind shivers with excitement at everything it hears,” Smith insists on slowing down the tempo, noting how the “Kerria blossoms burst forth yellow under a desert willow,” and “There are cheese sandwiches with mustard,” thus puncturing any possible full-tilt bombast with pragmatics, with precise identifications: “I take my time with the day.”)

Black Stone’s a splendid balancing act of concerns: greeting the new whilst confronting the old, demanding that it meet its promise. It selects its details with surety and grace, picking and choosing, as Marianne Moore says (quoting Xenophon), “a right good / salvo of barks.” “Only,” she says, “the most rudimentary sort of behavior is necessary / to put us on the scent.” It’s clear that Dale Smith doesn’t suffer fools, even momentarily. How it balances: against the patience and tenderness and care is a wild percipience, quick and derisive. Here’s Smith at the playground encountering a mother who’s (overly) “inquisitive,” full of “good-natured hostility,” “wants to pry in and take something”:
I’m braced for her world opinions. She seems like the kind of person eager to share them. She discourses on the National Good and her Private Gods. In her diaper bag there’s a bottle of juice for her toddler and a package of chips. I give her the quick backgrounder: one tot, one infant, recovering wife. Full time pops, occasional private eye. I feel cheap for having told her anything.
Terrific interplay of things here. In an “age” wherein the line between public and private is nigh-sunder’d, the public playground becomes the locus classicus for a private eye, just as it becomes a hazard for anyone, like Smith, who (as he writes in a biographical sketch) “practices the art of invisibility.” In an “age” wherein one’s compel’d to flaunt publicly (yea, “officially,” in the highest reaches of the government) one’s “Private Gods,” that sure sign of fundamental righteousness, where’s an “occasional private eye” to turn? One feels “cheap” for having enter’d into a “public” exchange under the banner of another’s (wrong) assumptions (“a package of chips”).

Note, too, the excellent and lengthy Hoa Nguyen and Dale Smith pages in the new Origin (Sixth Series), just released by Bob and Susan Arnold of Longhouse. It’s a whopping five hundred plus pages, the fourth and final issue of a bang-up homage to Cid Corman.

Dale Smith