Italian landscape calls forth memories

POET'S CORNER

Vivid description, quiet drama mark Dave Smith's work

November 16, 2003|By Michael Collier | Michael Collier,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Hart Crane's "My Grandmother's Love Letters" is one of the great lyric poems of the 20th century. It begins: "There are no stars to-night/ But those of memory./ Yet how much room for memory there is / In the loose girdle of soft rain."

In four lines, Crane has given us one of the simple but powerful formulas by which poetry operates: a stimulus in the present, such as the absence of stars, calls forth memory. And memory, though it is eventually located in particulars, is at first nothing more than space and possibility. It has the feel of time itself. Crane tells us that "Over the greatness of such space/ Steps must be gentle."

Dave Smith's beautifully evocative, and even gentle, "Evening Rain and Hydrangeas" employs a similar, though perhaps slightly more complicated strategy.

The poem begins with Smith looking through tall windows to "slick cobblestones" below. Beyond, a mountain pass fills with haze. Although we don't know this until later, Smith is in Bellagio, in northern Italy, above the picturesque and historically significant lakes Como and Lecco. It is a place where the "high air/ makes it easy to dream" and where he comes to understand "all life [is] hidden in shadows."

Robert Frost believed that poems were as good as they were dramatic. Drama isn't necessarily the conflict and tension that results from plot and action. Drama can be created by merely contrasting the present with the past, the way Smith does when he recalls how the rain used to skitter "down my grandmother's tin roof." The heightened awareness he experiences while looking out onto the Italian landscape is intensified because of the connection Smith is able to make with the remembered rain, especially how it sizzled "onto/ the petals of her prized hydrangeas."

In this way, the memory of those flowers and their "blue surprise" provides the emotional context for Smith's more immediate experience: "The way it is tonight, rain shaking Bellagio's hydrangeas."

"Evening Rain and Hydrangeas," a recent poem of Smith's, is filled with the signature elements of vivid description, clean narration and truth-seeking that has characterized his considerable body of work. Born in Portsmouth, Va., he writes frequently of his native tidewater - its crab and oyster boats, tide pools, ponds and sawmills. This is a landscape Marylanders share with Virginia, and so it is fitting that last year Smith joined the Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University as the Elliot Coleman Professor of Poetry.

The author of 18 collections of poems (as well as two books of fiction and three volumes of criticism), Smith is one of America's most significant poets. He is the recipient of many distinguished prizes, including an Award of Excellence from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

On Thursday, Smith will give Hopkins' annual Percy G. Turnbull Poetry Lecture. The lecture, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in Room 111 of Mergenthaler Hall on the Hopkins Homewood campus. More information is available by calling 410-516-2563.

Michael Collier is poet laureate of Maryland. Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.

EVENING RAIN AND HYDRANGEAS

By Dave Smith

Rain spatters slick cobblestones where walked God

only knows how many, as my grandmother would say.

Through tall windows I watch haze take the east pass,

owning mountains the way Nazis did in Panzer tanks,

that loud clanking and chinking forward only thumps

of lightning's concussions, all life hidden in shadows.

What else is war but cold hunks of metal, emptied

of malice, crews off in cafes, boys boasting of evils

they might do if the officers would ever go to sleep?

Here, in paradise of oleander, peonies, roses, high air

makes it easy to dream, as they must have, men given

back after the stinky columns squeezed through veins

of raw rock, one in the cafe reading the news, pale

as philosophers and poets with villas once, nights

beating hard down on Lecco and Como and nothing

could breach that serene lap of lake's wave on wave.

Predictable as the family. The way I used to feel

nights rain skittered down my grandmother's tin roof.

Ticked glass, everything sluiced fresh, sizzling onto

the petals of her prized hydrangeas. That's what comes

back now, the blue surprise when you'd touch one,

shaking so much wet on you and the dark spots then,

and the look she'd have when she'd see you walking in,

puzzled, same look the day my uncle dragged home alive,

himself stiff as canvas tents, his combat knife so sharp

he might have shaved someone deep, a boy who liked

throwing it at black pine until, bored, he sold it to me.

I remember how it rusted, left out in the work-shed,

with the spats, the web-belt canteen, the empty holster

and the opera ticket with the photo of an unknown girl

whose eyes were my grandmother's when she lay in rain.

Summer nights she'd smell the hydrangeas, say she knew

the boy would come home, things would be the same.

She'd cry. Then he was home. Then it was dark all over.

The way it is tonight, rain shaking Bellagio's hydrangeas.

Copyright (c) 2003 by Dave Smith. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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