These sonnets originally appeared in Midnight Found You Dancing (1986), Strands the Length of the Wind (1993), and Fireflies in the Magnolia’s Grove (2004). Smith’s essay is an abridged version of the introduction to Island Voices: John Smith (UPEI Integrated Promotions, DVD format, 2006).
Poems can be complicated critters. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to say enough about them to explain how they work or to explicate what they convey. There’s always something – much or little – about the poem that eludes paraphrase and exegesis. One can single out selected features; one can expatiate on the contexts in which a poem operates; one can point to what it implies. Then the poem has to be left to speak its own words. Or rather, some reader has to lend the poem his or her voice. Inevitably, a poem is performed, whether by a reader on a public platform, by a member of a coterie, or, most likely, by a solitary encounterer in the silent cave of the private mind. “Lend me your voice,” is something that every poem asks. Remembering, then, that no commentary is complete, and that all commentary, however helpful, distorts, I venture the following few remarks.
To mean much in few words has always been among the objectives of lyric poetry. In that respect, poets are not unlike physicists. Wherever you go in the large-scale universe, the simple Newtonian equation F = ma will tell you how hard you have to push to change the speed or direction of any object that possesses the mysterious quality of inertial mass, which is to say, any object made of what we call matter. A tiny equation with much to say. Moral philosophy has also crafted brief injunctions with wide application: “Love thy neighbour”; “Know thyself.” And the mind, usually considered small enough to fit inside the brain, has the capacity to comprehend the whole observable cosmos and to imagine possibilities beyond what observably is. The poetic impulse to concentrate, distill, and enrich, and thereby to reach far, belongs in the category of these other human compulsions and capacities to miniaturize imitations, and to reduce the large, complex and messy to something more readily managed and contemplated.
Report on Planet Earth
The men have been cobbled together out of second-hand lumber.
The women have been born under water.
The men are toolkits for prying open the outer world.
The women are searching for the eyes of things.
The women curl themselves around an undeliverable truth.
The men work by the edges of their senses
along jungle spoors white as the gossamer of old wounds.
After sunset, women and men alike sink into the blessing
of anonymity. They grow smooth enough to vanish.
Then it is the way it was before their puzzlement,
the way it will be after:
something—impossible to say what—pours
relentlessly through something into something.
No compromise. No fuss. No footprints in the snow.
What do we not know about the sonnet? It comes to us breathing the spirit of the Renaissance, the spirit of the autonomous individual, the inviolable value of specific occasion, specific anxiety, and specific movement of mind. It shares with the ballad stanza the honour of being our most recognizable lyric form. Eight lines, then something happens – we shift from complaint to praise, from invocation to celebration, from question to answer; a few drops of lemon fall into the tea – and a final six lines follow. Tension, then resolution. Eight to six: close to the Vitruvian proportion of torso to leg-length, according to some speculations; close to the ratio of the Golden Section (which is actually about 8:5) according to others. Printed on the page, the sonnet occupies a square, with enough white space around the edges to make room for reflection or for dreaming, for contemplation of what the printed words suggest but do not quite say.
I have written sonnets almost from the time that I began to make poetry. But one evening early in 1984 turned into something special. I sat down and wrote two sonnets. From that evening on, sonnets became a preoccupation. The kind of sonnet that I began to write seemed a natural development from the notes I had been entering in my journal, my book of ideas, for over 30 years – a more formal and imaginatively enhanced version, therefore, of a kind of writing with which I had been long familiar. In some sense, the poems that resulted compose the memoirs of a mind, and spanned nearly two decades by the time the preoccupation waned: puzzles, excitements, discomforts, as they seized my attention; interim reports on how the world’s prospects looked as of a particular day.
Sometimes the poem started largely as a record of a moment gratuitously bestowed. In other instances, however, the decision to write was the initiatory gesture, and the privileged moment was coaxed into being, and patted into size and shape, by the act of composition. I allowed myself to modify the sonnet form, to the extent, often, of lengthening the lines and adding extra lines, according to what I judged the requirements of the occasion. I dispensed with metre and rhyme on the premise that those ancient accomplices tend to bring with them conventions of sensibility, expression, and metaphysics from which, like most children of my time, I wished to be free. I borrowed from John Ashbery a certain freedom to shift the ground under my own and the reader’s feet without warning and without apology.
I also tended to assume a seamless continuity between the real and the imagined, and to accept disjunctions without blinking, as we accept as a fact of nature the unconformities in geological strata. When all these liberties are taken, one may ask, what is left of the sonnet form and its Renaissance belief in rational, dependable order? Though I freely admit an element of irony in referring to these poems as sonnets, the fundamentals of the form seem to me still to exert their influence, encouraging restraint and containment, and requiring the poet to come to the point without excessive dilly-dally.
Of the many poems produced under this prescription, the three volumes Midnight Found You Dancing, Strands the Length of the Wind, and Fireflies in the Magnolia Grove contain most of those that I consider worth the candle to reread. In these volumes, the poems are grouped in particular ways to suggest certain relationships among them. I rather like to think of them as randomly ordered facets of a polyhedron, a polyhedron constantly in process of extending the number of its faces. That polyhedron represents the wholeness, uncompleted and perhaps defiant of completion, that these privileged moments and their sonnet-embodiments compose. Turn it in your hands, from facet to facet, and read in any order, as few facets or as many as you will.
So This Is What
So this is what is called the surface of a planet.
How unlikely a chance to have found so tiny a cinder-crusted
ember in the amazement of space. But here I am.
I’m running over thin snow etched through by an underlying pebble-
field where each pebble leaves a wake in the wind, or from orbit
I’m looking down on what could be high-latitude fault-block
mountains. Either way, it’s incomparably strange to be alive, to be
confronted by such a dry, refractory facade, to be
at once so demanded and possessed of what one faces and so
detached, so indifferent to the charge and threat, so disposed
to flick one’s own existence off one’s cuff unexamined and without
regret. What I have come from is now an infinitesimal but still
bright and compulsively massive white hole in the darkness.
But there’s no going back: the source repels, countenances no return.
I’m still moving too fast. I must slow down and begin again
in some crouching posture to strike one stone against another.
I once met an art student, a sculptor, who was making rocks. Hard to make a rock, he said. At the time, I wondered why anyone would spend precious hours making rocks when he could have walked through field or quarry, by riverbed or shore, and picked up or admired for free any number of ready-mades. It was, after all, the era (1960s and ’70s) of the ascendancy of found art. Some decades later, writing the prose poems of Maps of Invariance, I began to get a better idea of what he was after: not just the finished product, but the experience of producing it. For I found myself trying to identify with natural process, assembling and modelling things that would have, in the end, something of the quality of metamorphic rock fragments – rocks marked with the accidents and transformations, the compactions, recombinations, crystallizations, of geologic time – an amalgam, in my case, of facts, inventories, speculations, anecdotes, allusions, theories, fantasies, narrative and expository sketchings, academic notes, questions, projections, taken up by a single prose voice modulating through a variety of tones, from detached to accusatory to elegiac to whimsical to pedantic to bemused to ardent to sentimental to visionary – an amalgam of disparate clips and tones that for all the apparent arbitrariness of their coming together would compose a suggestively ordered, or almost ordered, whole, a sequence that, beginning seemingly anywhere, and proceeding like a relaxed personal letter, a casual conversation, an informal lecture, or an impromptu reminiscence, would end somewhere welcoming and refreshing.
It sounds impossibly ambitious, and may well be so. Like making a rock, however, making such a poem is a salutary challenge, I found, and reading it – to speak only for myself – can be as invigorating as a wrestle in the surf with the shape-changing Old Man of the Sea.
A number of my poems, I’ve noticed, end, not intentionally, but by some sort of subliminal attraction, or by default, in or beside the sea. Having arrived at the water’s edge once again, therefore, may be my signal to say no more.
Selected Sonnets of John Smith
The World: A Hypothesis
The world blicked into being three minutes ago. Thanks
very much. Everybody comes loaded with a memory file
of what they are persuaded they did before that time. Historical
documents rank up in instant order. Libraries leap to fame
fully stocked. Fossil strata promptly presume to lie emplaced
as though a phalanx of dinosaurs dropped dead at the K/T
boundary. Quasars would have us believe they switched on 1010
years previous. And all makes busy rushing apart
at the Hubble rate. Whatever else it does,
the arrangement serves one end: to help us achieve
detachment, float free, realize the whole of the past
no more than a few digits jotted on an envelope,
and the future no more than more of the same,
cosmos a mote of dust in the eye, mind
a bouquet of aromatic molecules snuffed
in the nasal tract, and the inner life a cosy
enigmatic vacuole awaiting inclusions or occlusion.
It wasn’t three minutes ago. It’s always
the splittest second before you ask, or before you
think of asking, or before you know you don’t know
what it is—but there’s something—you need to ask.
At lightspeed the nightfield deepens, and we plunge
outward towards origin, scrolling back through time’s
aggrandizing entropy. Look there. Now you see them.
Now. You don’t. Fireflies. In the magnolia grove.
Nude with Stillson Wrench
This is not what you had in mind when you called the plumber.
Or is it? Is she that fleeing thought that pleaded for life
while you tapped your foot to the mood music on his answering machine?
Perhaps she’s been waiting in the bathroom from the first,
captive in holograph on the shower curtain, stepping forth now,
finally blessed with the opportunity to be of use. Except
that she comes too deeply mannered in the reveries of ennui,
the indifference to gooseflesh of one who has posed too long
while her arch accomplice laboriously erases and resketches
the sublimely elusive contours. She had hoped to use the wrench
to rescue from silence a wounded satellite. Just a turn or two
in empty space would have cinched the essential coupling, while she,
set in contrary motion equal and opposite, would have arced gracefully away,
rolling into the hammock of weightlessness possibly for ever.
What can one conceivably say to interest such a woman?
Only A Minute Fraction
Only a minute fraction of what is deposited gets preserved.
Much more is washed away again than buried.
Conditions have to be right, concentration of the solution
high enough, fall in temperature fast enough.
Otherwise, the collector’s hammer will have no cause to strike,
and the jagged result will be missing from its case:
there will a gap in the classification to be filled
by speculation only. Through such gaps imagination
enters the calculus, and, once there, itself becomes evidence
of lack or loss and of an urge to complete the pleroma.
Midnight found you dancing with a man unknown to the village.
Some years later you married him, and that, as it turned out,
was the start of another village, the one that survived,
whose children developed such a flair for colonization.
It’s Time to Talk
It’s time to talk regenerative braking, the dark
matter that may close a universe. As I die,
a conviction—call it, if you like, another illusion—grows
that failure of life here complements attainment of life there;
that rallentandos here are twilit sisters of accelerandos
elsewhere, kinetic loss is potential gain; diminished
actuality, a chance for the virtual to accent itself;
that gaps are invitations; nothing will be left empty for long;
or, since emptiness itself is another kind of fulfillment,
that imaginary space is vibrant with probability
amplitudes; that everything is wriggling: now it feels like me, now
something else. Life on the river goes on. It is the season of flowering
galaxies. Tomorrow I shall be unavailable for comment. Another voice,
not necessarily speaking a language you will understand,
or even be able to hear, will answer when you call.
Signs of Life Are
Signs of life are everywhere. The garden
won’t stop growing. When we turned our backs, moss,
heather, thyme, violets, forget-me-nots, and strawberries
took over. As gardeners, they’ve proved among the best.
The text goes on repeating itself: the walls
are made of it. The dead were the designated
auditors, but since we’ve ceased to believe in them,
it’s become a way of life for the living.
He’s the oldest monk. No one is left who remembers
when he first materialized at the gate. The finger-stops on his flute
are a sunny April evening after six days’ rain. He plays
his own hills and valleys now, woods ways, waters ways.
The sacred books are pasture rocks against which
his sheep card their fleece into strands the length of the wind.
Once It Mattered
Once it mattered that we find a way out of the forest.
We built these roads. The roads took us to beckoningly treeless places.
Yes, it was instructive to see the bones of the land clear of topsoil.
An age of geometaphysical innovation began. But all that sunlight,
unfiltered and untransfigured, unrendered into organic form,
proved unsustainable. A state of continuous illumination, so defined,
turned out to be little more than another version of the commonplace.
How many parsecs in the past was it that we had left the green
planet of our dreamtime? To hear again leaves close hands
in pathetic fallacy, to breathe fernspice and aromatic gums,
the will turned inward. Now there is forest again, and for reason,
empathy. Green light is god. In a million years, hardly a trace
will remain of the roads and their makers. The forest will be
a muted heaven of many voices, a few of which may still be ours.
The story of the young lovers began long ago
and still won’t stop. Even in his last hours,
the king keeps repeating it to himself. No one else
remains alive at battle’s end, but the story
goes on: the lovers have always just found
each other, are always about to trace the terrain
of tenderness, without benefit of time, with only
their hands, their breath. They never abandon
the central place, yet have easily arrived everywhere.
Birches all turn gold together.
Light fades, but fires feed on the dark.
Birches are green mist brushed on hillsides.
The old king rejuggles his bones, reaching for comfort
in last light. The young lovers encircle each other
in free fall, pure sky, beyond the ridge of everything.
The World: Further Hypotheses
The world is a hat. You put it on when you rise from the sea.
The world is an old shoe. You slip it off when you lie down to sleep.
At the vacuum’s ubiquitous centre, a speck of consciousness quivers to attention,
pinched in place by ardent arrays of would-be Platonic forms. A solo flyer
encompasses the globe, round upon round, humming a continuous filament.
Familiarity is the garment she conceives, repetition her métier. Continuity
of the discontinuous is assured by the presence of each in each. Here
is an orchestration of everywhere; now, an aspiration to forever and a day;
particulate self, one fleeting crick in the fullness of being. All things imply.
Beauty thus defined is not quite but almost perfect functionality. Failure to
replicate exactly is the secret; time travel would be otherwise impossible.
Much motion is required to support this stillness. Without this glove,
the lines of the invisible hand would have remained beyond apprehension.
We meet again by the ancient stream, we too who are so much running water.
Grasstips lick and lip the surface; brief and lifted, clear drops, shimmering, fall.
After So Long
After so long at ascetic distance, it’s hard to remember how once
a flush of ideation would start up from a kiss-print on a flank.
North or south from there it would butterfly, hedgehop, cartwheel,
beesip and barnstorm, accumulating aromatic vertigo,
touching down on a clavicle from which a cool vista spread for miles,
hovering over canyonland while grainy rivers ground their way through
varved prehuman centuries, scanning cavemouths for a first
thin hearthsmoke rising to challenge comprehension, or tumbling
into momentary velvet-sweet excesses of some woodside flower. That
was the era of canonic textuality, of classic plate tectonics, available only
within limited ranges of parameters, or earlier, the era of decisions about
what laws of necessity would thereafter apply—the pervasiveness of bipolarity
for one, and dialectics and erotic protocols that thence arise. It was spring then,
verging on summer, or thereabouts. It’s farther on in the cycle now. Initial
plantings are pleasant groves and stately avenues. The house, vacated,
has settled more deeply into weather, but is still maintained. The curious,
the jaded, the nostalgic, those seeking inspiration in the chapel, the music
room, the study where data assembled and defining resonances emerged—such
visitors as these pass through from time to time. Not you and I ever again of course,
but others will fall in love here, as we did ourselves in days before the war.