Austin Smith, Almanac (Princeton UP, $12.95)
Robin Robertson, Hill of Doors (Picador, £14.99).
Austin Smith’s debut collection with the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets is an impressive testament to rural life in north-western Illinois. Almanac is arranged concentrically around the family dairy farm and its surrounding landscape, reaching as far as Virginia, South Dakota and Nazi Germany. Smith manages to plot an impossible chain of events onto the Midwest landscape: there is a sense that the “Nazi Soldier with a Book in His Pants” or Emmet Gowin’s photographs (“Nancy and Dwayne, Danville, Virginia, 1970”) are having some sort of real-time or retroactive effect on Smith and the farm. At the root of all this is a sense of Smith’s responsibility to continue to return to this landscape – either literally, geographically, or by plotting wormholes around it.
to describe the trembling light
the granaries can barely contain[.]
The task Smith sets himself: attesting to the memory of the farm he was raised on, is as present in the exacting details of Smith’s father and grandfather (“Wake”) – as it is in Smith’s sense of duty to a poetic tradition, or – more accurately – the poets Smith encountered as a young man on the farm: a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (as if it had been saved by the Nazi soldier for Austin) and Frost’s “Directive”:
in my parents’ barn, obsessed with what
“Directive” means. Perhaps I was looking too
deeply into those lines. Here are our waters
and your watering place. Drink and be whole
again beyond confusion.
(“Directions for How to Use Crest Whitening Strips”)
Perhaps he was. It’s hard to tell just how serious Smith is about returning to this farm – since he has at heart, our getting lost. Almanac then, manages to establish a strange topography of the farm based on misdirection: the “invisible pillar” of “The Silo”; “The Pit” in the woods, “too deep […] to fill,” and “The Trencher” “no one | ever explained.” For Smith, these holes are a kind of landmark that exact a knock-on effect on the rest of the landscape and the community, in ways that become increasingly difficult to gauge. The reader is increasingly forced to make a series of paranoid connections between all the events in the collection: Smith’s father’s careless use of carcinogenic herbicide in “Thistles” is followed in the collection by the night Smith’s mother finds a lump under her breast (which turns out to be “something harmless”). Smith gives the impression of having the whole thing figured out.
The poems enjoy the drama of an almost biblical cadence, set against a direct, well-timed speech: moving between a kind of Puritanism (the piety of the farm and its daily rituals; Smith’s austere, uncompromising voice) – and a violent, lawless mysticism that “flooded the New England town depicted on the wallpaper” (“Bingo”). If there is some kind of larger scheme or forecast at work here, perhaps Smith is at its mercy.
Robin Robertson’s Hill of Doors seems at first to enjoy the same kind of bold mythmaking as Almanac: there are four Ovid versions; four Dionysus “retellings”; four “farewells” (or elegies, even) and, the glossary tells us, there’ll be some Fra Angelico, Tiepolo and Goya. Robertson’s collection is thoroughly punctuated by the worlds of the classics and the old masters. Where in Almanac we hear the measure of the Bible against Smith’s cutting, throwaway lines, in Hill of Doors, Robertson’s language undergoes a kind of decay that manages to incorporate both the tones and moods of the classical and Robertson’s world. Hill of Doors starts then, at the heights of the “Annunciation,” and finishes with “The Key”:
to the walled garden, the place
I’d never been,
with a simple turn
of the key
I’d carried with me
all these years.
Rather than speculate what’s going on with the blank page at the back of the collection where the last poem listed in the contents should be…or is (“Robertson’s Farewell”)…what I think is more interesting is how successfully Robertson manages to shift, or level-off the tone in what seem to be two very different halves of a collection, marked by “The Halving”:
I have been away, I said to the ceiling,
and now I am not myself.
How is there space enough in the collection for a poem like “The Key” alongside, or after “The Ghost of Actaeon” and “Dionysus and the Maiden” – let alone two Robertsons? While there is something to be said against the tired and tiring language of reeds, cups of wine, nymphs in garlands, hares in streams, and so on (and Robertson is guilty of a few, here) – he avoids the temptation of a complete overhaul, and instead manages to let the mood of a poem like “The God Who Disappears” slip into a poem like “Second Sight” (or, perhaps it was the other way round) – unavoidably altering our starting point for a poem like “Partytime”:
I remember, before my vision went.
My failed attempt to split the collection into ‘Robertson poems’ and ‘classical/mythical poems’ (and try to avoid the latter) is demonstrative here – since although I will admit to skipping a line or two of the Nonnus (they still stand as pillars in the collection) – what they lend to the sound and feel of the ‘Robertson poems’ is important. Hill of Doors manages to avoid the trap of either running two different registers against each other (the classical in translation versus the ‘modern’) or of thoroughly modernising the classical. Robertson’s skill then, is in presenting the modes of language and associated narratives of the classical, the autobiographical, and the lyrical as constitutive of each other.