The Flood & The Garden

by Dale Smith

$12 First Intensity Press

Words take forms we don't always recognize. The actual experience of language grows from our own pulse. Sometimes I sense it so clearly, that we are mediums, and that we must seek out the words in ourselves, that we may gather knowledge of the land, our feet, distant cities or the touch of friends. There is a thought of architecture we inherit, a willing form...

In this passage near the beginning of The Flood and the Garden (First Intensity), writing of William Carlos Williams, Dale Smith addresses poetic orders of the highest magnitude, the art of charging words with sense and feeling, of distilling experience directly into an energy that can then be transferred, a la Charles Olson, from poem to reader. But he also touches on the dilemma that all modern poets, perhaps starting with Williams, face:

Who knew better the drudgery of work, and the sheer will and effort needed to free the imagination... The flat cold mornings wrapped him up, the car defrosting in the driveway while he lingered, just a moment, thumbing a yellow notebook. Then off to the miserable Rutherford sick. He addressed the poem as he could, attendant to the day and its unknown content.

Smith writes here of the poet who chose to stay and work as Doctor in rural America rather than live as Artist in Paris, like his contemporary Ezra Pound. His poems, then, refracted through the duties his work entailed, famously scribbled on prescription pads, observations of the sick and broken-down or still-spirited poor he treated, incisive as a surgeon's knife but terse as a pathological report.

It is no wonder that a modern poet, especially one so rooted to his own America and caught in the same worklife dilemma of balancing artistic and practical realities, would turn to Williams as a model. American life has changed the nature of time, our gas and gadgets speeding the pace of life to an ever-increasing velocity, downing distance in bigger and bigger gulps. There is less and less room for anyone who doesn't get with the program of Empire, and the artist has always been regarded as little more than roadkill on the superhighway of commerce and economy. It's a strange sort of taboo to speak about this today, as if one were taking the role of "victim," but Pound wasn't embarrassed to write of the antipathy Americans have to supporting their artists in the early part of this century, and as recently as 1967 Lew Welch complained, in his essay "Bread vs. Mozart's Watch," of having to work long hours on a fishing boat to support himself. "Nobody expects a carpenter to have to find work as a poet," his reasoning ran, "why should a poet have to work as a carpenter?"

All of which is an odd way to begin to talk about this sensual, sensitive book, which has little to do directly with this issue. But it's worth noting that Williams, who toughed out this condition almost 100 years ago without retreating into the academy or expatriation, would naturally appeal to the stubborn sensibilities of Smith, so tied to his native Texas and determined to find those words "in himself," in his own way, on his own terms. While the book seldom touches the struggle directly, the things that are real to Smith -- the odor of plants and herbs on the warm Texas air, the curve of his lover's skin, the truths of poetry, expressed in flashes of insight while going about the busy-ness of his day -- speak to it far more poignantly than outright argument could.

Anyone who has ever tried to keep a "daybook" knows what a difficult task this is, how much of everyday life seeps under the bridge of consciousness like a fast-flowing stream. How hard it is to pause, dip into the rush of words feelings images, and emerge day in and day out with something sustained and cohesive.

Another model Smith takes is Kerouac's "goofbooks," some of which I've had the pleasure of perusing in the New York Public Library's Berg Collection. Those raw, five-cent notebooks, filled with long rhapsodic episodes of life, the flash and hustle of New York and San Francisco, gush with Kerouac's ecstatic vision and characteristic "speed" of detail. (Most of them later finding their way intact into his freeform novels.) But Smith in some ways stands against that speed, constantly working to slow his pulse, to "hold on to the question" as he writes on p. 39, to steep his observations in silence and a tender reflectiveness. In tone and pace they more closely resemble Elias Canetti's Notes from Hampstead and German writer Peter Handke's The Weight of the World, both of which provide a window into the mind of a working author, full of notes on reading material and chatty asides describing interactions with friends and lovers, where ideas are every bit as real as the people who move through the pages, the speed internal, the passages brief.

For Smith, the vicissitudes of his reading might hit as hard as a Texas thunderstorm, a line in a poem felt as deeply as the bulge of his son in his partner's belly. All of it gets jumbled together, connections shooting between inner and outer world, a stern and steady attention to his observations and where they lead him, not only knowing but as Gertrude Stein wrote "knowing himself knowing it."

A good example is the short bit entitled "Rats," page 41. Spotting a midnight rat migration through his kitchen window, fragments of texts float up to Smith's consciousness, and he flits from Geofrey Hartman to William Blake to Jack Clark in barely the space of a paragraph, which in turn leads him to a rumination on animal sacrifice: "It's the use of sensation as it gnaws with the mind to center the attention that most consumes, and burns out, into a single smoky victim... the Karankawans cooked rat whole, and gnawed the small prey like State Fair corn dogs." This ritual-alchemical musing then breaks into a realization that "Meaning is not given to the world about us, but derived from it... Words aren't thoughts but ideas in things, and poets attend not what they mean to say but how what they say means."

Elsewhere, longer passages allow the half-hidden narrative of daily life to emerge, as names and places pop up again and again, giving the contour of a life devoted to poetry but tempered by the realities of living it -- getting by working crummy gigs, arguing with fool and friend alike, battling snails in his garden, awaiting the birth of his son.

Something stank in the pantry, made me gag. A sweet potato gummed up in a dark corner. I tossed it into the trash, but the goo stuck, gagging me as I sponged it. Hoa told me she'd clean it, assuming some guilt in this. 'Don't worry about it,' I said. 'I'll take care of it.' 'No, she said, 'Let me do it.' Words escalated. 'Fuck it,' I said, 'clean the fucking shit then.' She scrubbed, her belly bulging in black space. More words exchanged. She charged me with insulting her, abusing her 'condition.' 'Fuck your goddamn condition,' I said. At that hot tears hit cheeks in the early light. She stormed to the bathroom. I followed, pushing open the door. 'How could you say that,' she said, cat hair at our feet.

This anonymous entry from page 77, pathetic almost to the point of comic absurdity in its mundane, domestic testiness, shows the dark side of that life with its undertow of frustrations. That Smith is willing to present such moments without wheedling comment or explanation only balance the greater thrust of his emotions.

From page 19:

I've come to women against my knowledge, all my life, and through them have earned some place of my own in myself. Hoa, dancing in blue dress at Sean and Deborah's wedding, seemed to me then, a most beautiful woman. This is not some sentimental projection but a fact of her body and its effect on me. The young Korean woman also appealed to my senses, but knowledge rose to my skin with the steps of Hoa.

This passage points to the other narrative that moves underneath the narrative of the every day, involving Smith's growing sense of his place as poet, his feeling of "someone outside me looking in" (page 76), or through, the urge to "Get me out of the way," in an almost Spicerian sense. In this context, miniature essays on Williams, snatches of Paul Blackburn or Robert Duncan or D.H. Lawrence, tales from myth re-imagined as Smith works in his own "garden," ground the text in its central images of the flood and the garden, weaved in so seamlessly that they never seem like a slapped-on framework for what is, after all, only a daybook.

It is a daybook, after all, and the juiciest pleasure comes from that mysterious fleshy outline that Smith reveals, like a flash of skin on a hot summer day. The feeling of heat and sweat of Austin, the smells of herbs, the echoing laughter of friends -- and the insights of an eager mind moving underneath and through them all.

-- David Hadbawnik, August 2002