Book review: Elusive meanings underlie poetic descriptions

Written in free verse, Jordan Smith’s new poetry collection is easy to read, has recognizable topics

Jordan Smith’s new poetry collection has a cover photograph that captures the mood of the 71 well-written poems inside.

Smith, a professor of English at Union College and author of two other poetry collections, chose a photograph of Saratoga Springs in the 19th century. It shows the United States Hotel and a street full of horse-drawn carriages, lined by tall elms. While the center of the picture is clear, the edges are damaged and clouded.

Need for imagination

The viewer will recognize much of the scene easily, but the clouded edges require imagination to see what is unseen.

Smith’s poems offer the same opportunity and challenge. Written in free verse, they are easy to read, have recognizable topics and beautiful phrases. But each has something elusive, something that causes the reader to think hard or re-read the poem.

‘The Light in the Film’

Author: Jordan Smith

Published by: University of Tampa Press, 88 pages

How much: $12

More info: Smith will read a selection of his poems at Caffe Lena, 47 Phila Street, Saratoga Springs, on Wednesday, March 7. It is an open mic poetry night with readings by all poets, including Smith, starting at 7:30 PM. For more information, call 583-0022.

The subjects include love, illness and hospitals, nature, weather, classical and popular music, Edward Hopper and Degas, the mind, sports and the water — fresh water and the ocean at Cape Cod and Nantucket.

Smith’s poems are appealing and immediately accessible when read, and maybe even better when he reads them aloud. If you have a chance to hear him, don’t miss it. He has a good speaking voice and reads with a solid pace, bringing to light new things that are not apparent when reading the poems.

In a poem about Charles Ives, his writing about the composer is so sharp and well-rendered that I could hear Ives’ piece “Three Places in New England” rising from the page. In the poem “The Minds,” he describes necessity as “that bore/ At the bar with an answer for everything.” In “American Studies,” he recalls his grandfather’s backyard, “At the edge of one of those lakes we call great because/ They seem to lead to no other shore.”

In the poem “Stones, Just Stones,” he comments on how things should just be what they are without deeper meaning. But his description of a prosaic stone is anything but: “how not to love the quartz/ Patterning its spiral, its constellation in the red granite.”

While these individual lines are a delight to come across, the best things about “The Light in the Film” occur when Smith finds insights in the most unexpected places. His poem “Contradance” realistically describes the dance, its jumble of musicians, their instruments and instrument cases and the dancers moving through the dance steps.

Winter impressions

For this time of year, Smith also gives the reader nasty, slushy winter weather. But then, from these accurately described impressions, he muses about love, marriage and how to balance being a good parent and a good spouse.

In “Herbal,” he starts with descriptions capturing the essence of cilantro, oregano, pepper and other spices. He goes on to remembering the smells from an old spice factory in Baltimore, flavoring the end of an evening of drinking. The poem may be about lost youth, in a way similar to Barry Levinson’s “Diner,” it may be about aroma as communication, or it may be about something else entirely.

At the beginning, “Contradance” was my favorite poem. Then near the end, I read “Liberty,” about a hot and muggy July 4th with a storm about to move in. When people write about the 4th, they can be passionately and superficially for or against the idea of American liberty. But Smith takes a different tack. He sees liberty in the form of “That black dog, large and into everything. That bounder . . . stretching the leash taut.”

Categories: Life and Arts


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