In the early 1990s, Publishers Weekly heralded Charlie Smith as a “major poet.” The New York Times said he was “prodigiously talented.” These accolades appear on the back cover of his third collection of poems, The Palms, which I remember reading in 1994 when I was a student at NYU.
But at the time, Smith was better known as a fiction writer. My first encounter with him had been in a live reading at the 92nd Street Y. He was the junior statesman that night, with Paris Review editor George Plimpton and novelist Peter Matthiessen ahead of him on the ticket. Plimpton introduced Smith as a young William Faulkner. He read from his second novel, Shine Hawk, and it was indeed dazzling—but it wasn’t poetry.
So I bought The Palms, wondering how a young William Faulkner would go about writing poetry. I was never really sold on those poems. They were good enough structurally, and in their sense of the line, but they were affected in diction; maybe the verbal constructions seemed a bit overbuilt, too fancy. Also, the poems were too descriptive, too narrative-oriented, to be interesting as poems. In any case, they weren’t as lyrical or innovative, tight or explosive, as Ginsberg, Ashbery, Neruda and the other poets I was cutting my teeth on. Smith was, in my view, a big-shot novelist who dabbled in a kind of lazy fiction-writerly free verse.
I haven’t really thought about Charlie Smith during the last fifteen years, except when I’ve organized my bookshelves. Recently his new book of poems, Word Comix, arrived in the mail from Norton. What a revelation! I now believe that Smith was a young poet who somehow got tricked into writing fiction, and who only in his later work is really emerging. The poems are relaxed, direct, surprising; they display none of the descriptive overreach of his earlier poetic efforts.
“I still can’t tell you what I’m known for,” says Smith in the first poem, “I Speak to Fewer People.” “On my walks I hope to meet someone interesting, / someone I have been headed toward all my life, / or simply someone without too much guileâ€¦” he continues. It is as if all of the other concerns or ideas have been stripped away, revealed for the props and scenery that they are, and all that’s left on stage is one actor sitting on a chair. The things he says are what’s important.
These poems convey regret—perhaps even resentment—at being so often introduced as a young William Faulkner. “I’d come so far, the last leg / in a shiny new car and then the ride on the special train // for the privileged & successful,” he writes in “One Lie After Another,” which then lists, in obscure terms, a few of his personal losses: “My buddy’s a war correspondent now. // We lost touch after going sour in a poker game.” Amongst these, more profound questions arise: “Why’d you even start?” and “What was it / you believed in?”
One thing Charlie Smith is good at in these poems, and which he showed no sign of in his earlier poems, is undercutting his own statements and finding a deeper truth in the contradiction. “Evergreens” begins, “The year I admitted I was lonely / I didn’t know what I was saying,” and later says, “I didn’t know / how one thing leads to another,” and finally he’s doing what he never wanted to do—pandering to people “who later as they heavily, roguishly dance, / think well of you.”
It is this business of being thought well of that haunts the elder Smith—of having gone through life thinking that what he was doing was important, because other people said it was, and having woken up one day to realize that it was all just noise. What mattered then and what still matters most to Smith is his boyhood, now lost—his earliest memories of living in Moultrie, Georgia, where he was born, its scenery, its roads, its people. It’s not that he wants to go back to that, even if he could. It’s that he wants to find something as meaningful at this stage in his life.
“Lariats” begins, “I suppose I want forgiveness for lying so bluntly / and not getting around behind the house / where the real work is.” Later in the poem: “Now the descriptions I read in the paper / of souls caught thieving, caught lying / about the body, always fit, always ring true.” It may be a stretch to read this book as the confession of a man whose eyes have been opened, and who sees the literary world (and all its amenities) for the racket that it is. But if that is what’s going on in the poems, then it’s a very fine book, and an unusual one. It is the rare famous author who’s able to return, painfully, to his beginning and ask, what was this for? Why did I do this?
A poem later in the collection, “The Greeks,” portrays Smith’s inner world as the site of a modern tragedy, often returning to moments of banality and the kinds of thoughts that whirl around those moments. “I dream sometimes of going away,” he writes,
but not as often as I used to, I’ve already cut out
so many times, started over, I don’t know where I’d go
or don’t trust—something, I stay where I am.
At the coffee bar where I go at daylight to work things through
a woman in straight-laced clothes comes in and goes out
nervously, asks for coffee, picks at her cuticles as she waits
looking around—I notice this
but it’s as far as I go, the rounded cheeks, flat black eyes,
yes they’re in there too, but no further than this, I don’t speculate
for example about what she’s doing. I’m growing more numb as time
passes except for the moment when the person next to me is spoken to
and I become acutely embarrassed, like an adolescent who’s sure
everyone can see through to his mucky shame. I see many others
who’re weary and nervous and sore of heart,
but you can’t speak to them in a city like this
without taking a chance on getting battered.
What drives this poetry, and makes it so eminently readable, is its voice. It sounds real. It doesn’t grasp for something interesting to talk about, a fragrant, beautiful scene to describe and ponder, or a gripping story to tell. It doesn’t get caught up in itself. Smith is at a point in his career when he can just write. The poetry in Word Comix sounds like the real Charlie Smith, and I’m glad to have met him.