Review by Review by John MacLean
Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating…
William Hastings, editor, The Industrial Worker Book Review
Smith, Abraham. "Hank." Action Books: Notre Dame, Indiana. 2010
Ortiz, Simon J. "From Sand Creek." Thunder's Mouth Press: Oak Park, New York. 1981.
Williams, Hank. Audio Recording: "The Ultimate Collection." Mercury Records: Nashville, Tennessee. 2002.
O'Connor, Frank. "The Lonely Voice." Melville House: New York, New York. 2004.
Backstage in Cleveland's Agora, I shared a pre-show drink with J.B. Beverley. My interview of him was going well. He had ten minutes to go before the show started. We began swapping old Nashville stories we had heard. Insider stories, the ones musicians pass amongst each other. I told him one about Waylon Jennings wearing a pair of boots Hank Williams had owned during a recording session. When Waylon began to sing a lightning storm kicked up, struck the studio and fried the boards. His band thought the boots jinxed and he took them off and recorded the tracks for the night in his socks.
"Here's my favorite Hank Williams story," J.B. said. "It's one I keep in mind every time I walk on stage."
"Alright," I said. I stubbed my cigarette out in the ashtray.
"Hank had a new pedal steel player. They're on the road, the guy had studied the songs and knew what to play. Before each gig, Hank circled up with his band backstage. One night, before this pedal steel player's first gig with Hank they circle up and the pedal steel player asks Hank how he wants him to play a certain part of the opening song. Hank looks at him, then looks at the band and says, 'I don't much care how you play it, boys. Just leave out the vanilla.'"
Leave out the vanilla.
Over the years it would become Hank Williams' calling card. No excess, leave out all the unnecessary notes. Just use what is needed. Hank Williams' stripped poetry, his bare-knuckle sound, cast him as country music's first superstar and perhaps, along with Jimmie Rodgers, as a prime moving force in what took country music from the hills to the streets. He combined the blues with Appalachian mountain music and made something new. While he mixed and cast that hybrid stew he left out the vanilla and made a sharp and clear and precise song.
Abraham Smith, in his book of poetry, "Hank," fails entirely to walk in the shadow of the book's namesake. His poems are excessive, overly verbose, nearly non-sensical in their presentation of ideas and are entirely devoid of the restraint Hank Williams used so effectively in his songs. Ostensibly, "Hank" is supposed to cast the ghost of Hank Williams in a new light, a pean to the lost and lonely landscape of America that the singer charted so well. However, Smith's failure to write cohesively, his total excess of words, fails entirely to do that. Simon J. Ortiz' "From Sand Creek," in a far better use of restraint, is a clearer window into that lonely America. It is an America stripped by war and imperialism, an America that Ortiz charts like a seismograph.
While one should not base the contents of a book by what is on the cover, it can also be assumed that, like an album of music, the cover art, title and contents should create a harmonious whole, layering the presentation with meaning. Abraham Smith's collection of poetry, "Hank," has a famous portrait of Hank Williams on the cover, reworked with PhotoShop to make the portrait into a ghost. The image, combined with the title and the recurrent use of Hank Williams' name within the poems themselves would leave you to assume that the collection is either an ode to Hank Williams, or a conjuring of his ghost for a new millennium. As if, Hank Williams has returned to this new America and is ready to do away with both his old image and what he has found here. This idea is most readily apparent in Smith's titles. For example, the opening poem is titled "//(@(@( ," or the poem on page seventy-eight bears the title, "!+#*" Each poem is titled like this, a combination of symbols without any letters or words. Typically, in comic books or in newspapers such symbols are used to break apart curse words so that the word can be printed. Fuck becomes f*ck and shit becomes sh#t. Also, in the comic book format, such symbols can be used to show extreme reactions and emotion. When a character is frustrated or angry a line of symbols will appear in a thought bubble above the character's head. It is as if the symbols break apart language, or that language at that point is no longer useful, the emotion is too strong and there is not a word in our language that can contain or match that emotion. Smith's titling of his poems as such could then indicate that each poem is a scream or an expletive, a release of something great and unrestrained into our landscape.
And Smith is releasing something, that is for certain, though just what is far from clear. The idea that Hank Williams, either his memory, ideas or ghost could be conjured in these poems is nearly farcical. While Smith may want to show his readers that he is destroying the idea of titles, or that his titles are screams, his screams/poems present nothing clear, nothing moving. And if the poem is neither clear or moving, one would have to question if it is even a poem. Or if it is even writing. For example, the poem " ($(%*^U& " begins on page sixty-one with the lines:
because you can stand on
a rotten moose liver all
day in maine in a big old
rain and i still love you
sheet shake flea bane rain
would love to
fatten you up to eat
you? to heath bar you to
heath bar wrapper in
the shit of a bear just that just wrapper
One could ease themselves with the knowledge, when reading this, that the poem eventually will take shape and lead you somewhere. Trust is essential between reader and writer and even in the most symbolist, surrealist or post-modern works, you can still approach the writing with the knowledge that no matter how weird the ride, the writer will still take them somewhere. Smith however, over the next five pages of this poem, never takes the reader anywhere, let alone starts them out on something. The poem continues on in this fashion, stretching image and rhyme together, but without attaching either to something that takes shape in your mind. He writes, "guess / where's my heart? / barn or silo or house like / an eyelid on a sheep sly / little seagull with a bell y/ like a barn where were you born?" (62) Or, continuing past this Smith writes, "and a pack of burdock cheroots my i / is in this i i.d. the line of them that picket / to bring back that window tax you'd think / as the kids fatten we'd be heading" (63). This is excess at its worst. The lack of restraint in his lines leaves the words hovering far above the page, a verbal exercise that never says or means anything to the reader. It's not that he added the vanilla, he added everything else as well. And in adding everything he has said nothing. William S. Burroughs, even with his most excessive use of the cut-up technique, was still readable. For Burroughs could write a line that hit the reader like a hammer blow and in dissolving it across a cut-up page, the blow was scattered, but still moving. Smith does not do this. His lines and rhythms are disjointed, which may be alright if the disjointed rhythms brought the ideas and images of the poem to you. But his images and ideas are so disjointed that you are entirely unclear as to what it is that Smith is actually writing about. This does not even reinforce the idea behind the collection's titles either. For a scream is a sharp, piercing note that is unforgettable and clear. Likewise a curse or a curse word. Smith's poetry is so unclear that it is forgettable. Thus, even his titles are failures.
But, it would be a worthwhile exercise to attempt to give Smith the benefit of the doubt and attempt to see if some of his images can attach themselves to Hank Williams' songs. If they could, then Smith would have succeeded in saying something of value about those images. Again, the poem on page seventy-eight is titled "!+#*" It begins with the lines, "fred rose and hank williams in a writer's room / and ain't nobody ever / has known what / went on behind / that leaden handle door / the great wide door / that whipping walloper / this is already a great fat lie / for the door was a papery thing." Hank Williams is surrounded by either a lie or he is in a space that is inaccessible to most. You could assume that Hank Williams, along with fred rose (Smith's lack of capitalization) is alienated from whatever is on the other side of the door, since he is in the space where "ain't nobody ever / has known what / went on behind / that leaden handle door" (78). Williams certainly was no stranger to loneliness, it perhaps is the greatest theme of his songbook. Take for example his song "Alone and Forsaken." It begins with a strumming of chords that rely heavily on the bass notes. From the instant the song begins, that reliance on the deep and dark notes of a chord shadows the song with a texture of darkness and enclosure. When Hank Williams begins to sing he says, "We met in the springtime when blossoms unfold / The pastures were green and the meadows were gold / Our love was in flower as summer grew on." The imagery of light, ripening spring is dissonant to the dark bass notes and heavy chords around these images. Doom hangs above these trees, death is in the grass. And because of a song title as sharply focused as "Alone and Forsaken," the listener going into the song knows that no matter what happens within it, ultimately the song is about being alone and forsaken. There may be blossoms and green pastures in the song, but they will pass for loneliness and shadow. A split second after the spring imagery of the opening lines, Williams shows this when he sings that, "Her love like the leaves have withered and gone / The roses have faded / there's frost at my door/ the birds in the morning don't sing anymore." His images are sharp and clear. When combined with the ominous chords and precise song title, the entire emotional package of the song can do nothing but punch your heart. What's more, Williams' lines bear restraint. They are clipped and to the point. He uses a single image before moving on to the next, choosing his words with precision and care. What is also valuable in these lines is what is not being said. Williams has limited himself to only the necessary. Unlike Smith's poems, by leaving out a host of other images and words that could also have worked, Williams' song bears more emotional force because he's doing more with less. By the time Williams sings that "the grass in the valley is starting to die / and out in the darkness the whippoorwills cry" you are nearly as broken as the singer. Williams could have used the words "die" and "darkness" earlier, in fact at any point with the imagery used above, since they all point in that direction, but by not doing that, by building the images up and saving the words until they were absolutely needed, those words bear all the more force. From here Williams seamlessly blends into the chorus. He sings, "alone and forsaken by fate and by man / oh Lord if you hear me please hold my hand / oh please understand." What else needs to be said about loneliness? What else needs to be said about being lost and afraid? Hank Williams has done everything Smith seemed to want to do and in half the space. And "seemed" is the operative word here, since you are never quite sure if Smith intended to go forward with his image of an alone and isolated Hank Williams since the poem shifts rapidly into unrelated verbal nonsense.
Smith's grossest use of excess comes in the book's final poem, "@#(%*#$%(#$)%)#$%#$" The poem is forty pages of the type of disjointed, worthless image and word shifting games highlighted above. It is nothing short of a test of patience to read it. I did and by the end of it I was worn out, confused and cheated. Cheated namely, because I will never regain the time it took me to read it. There are points though, where Smith, as above, with some forced stretching on the reader's part might come close to actually saying something. Looking at one or two of these examples against what Hank Williams did, will serve to again highlight how good Hank Williams was and how far gone Smith is from Williams' example.
The first thing that strikes the reader in "@#(%*#$%(#$)%)#$%#$" is the repeated use of road or movement images/words. Within the first page of the poem (page 89) Smith uses the words "skate," "walking shoes," "winds," "road," "fly," and others. While taken separately like this they seem to highlight a desire to talk about a road song or man's flight, but read within the poem they lose much of this idea. For example Smith writes, "by sexy swallow birds fly by big fast shower stout/ low light sweet light tooth ache wipe the trees they/ feather picked it yes i think they fetched it and" (89). What is happening here? What is Smith actually writing about? You get so lost in the excessive word usage, the fractured sense of place and time that the lines read like Smith had eaten a handful of twelve hour spansules of Dexedrine and typed out whatever words came to his mind in the exact order they came in. And it leaves you with nothing. However, when Hank Williams sings a road song he captures you entirely. In Hank Williams' song, "Ramblin' Man," a song he recorded under the pseudonym Luke the Drifter, Williams has written the soul of the wanderer in as clear a light as has ever been done, Hermann Hesse included.
The essence of the song hangs in the opening notes. The acoustic guitar is strummed high and open and is followed by the pedal steel hanging three high and long notes in the air right before Hank Williams' voice cuts in. Here, in these bare accompaniments the song opens up wide as an Illinois cornfield and as high as the sun. "I can settle down and be doing just fine," Williams sings, "till I hear an old freight / rollin' down the line." He bends and pitches the word "down" up high, as if he is mimicking the rolling train's whistle, the train calling him far from home. It is a technique that he repeats in the very next line when he sings "and I hurry straight home and pack / and if I didn't go / I'd believe I'd blow my stack / I love you baby / but you gotta understand / when the Lord made me / he made a ramblin' man." Throughout those words Williams bends his voice up high as the pedal steel in the background does the same, both calling and mimicking the freight trains. Williams' lines again, are to the point, saying nothing but what needs to be said and are backed by a sound that highlights his images and moans. And while it could be argued that this is easier to accomplish in a song with the aid of a backing band than it is in a poem, one would only have to refer to Walt Whitman's 1855 version of "Song of Myself" to see how a poet can supply backing rhythms, sounds and pedal steel notes to his lyrics. Where Smith writes on page eighty-nine, "sanguine sangfroid sang sanka bought / a coffee plantation the end" or on page ninety-one when he says that "this world is a hungered world / and there's a paper crane carrion / all over the moon / something western railroad spike transfusion to him too / the mother trigger vowel pull," Williams cuts hard and quick with "Some folks might say / that I'm no good / that I wouldn't settle / down if I could / But when that open road starts to call in me / there's something o'er the hills that I gotta see / sometimes its hard but you gotta understand / that when the Lord made me he made a ramblin' man." Williams knows what to leave out and what to use, whereas Smith reminds you of a horn player that wants to solo before he learns the scales. Smith's gross excess buries whatever ideas began the poem, whereas Williams' restraint and composure allow him to manipulate what he's using to its maximum extent. Had Smith actually taken the time to listen to Hank Williams' music, instead of relying upon whatever he heard about the myth of the man, he would have understood that more can be done with less and that to leave out the vanilla is an excellent guiding principle for song lyrics, a backing band or a poet.
For each of Smith's failures, Simon J. Ortiz in "From Sand Creek" has a success. And while Ortiz certainly did not set out to write an ode to the ghost of Hank Williams, his collection of poems, for their very restraint and power end up serving as the best representation of Williams' songwriting ideals and ideas in poetry. But as you will see, that description of Ortiz' collection does the book disservice. It is nothing less than one of our very best works on the American soul, the road, the disastrous effects of war and imperialism and the call of the blood that seeps up through the ground. In short, it is one of the very finest poetry collections ever written in this country.
Ortiz begins "From Sand Creek" with a brief preface, followed by a viscerally rendered account of the November 29, 1864 massacre of Cheyenne and Arapahoe peoples at Sand Creek, Colorado. Thus, the title is matched with the historical and emotional underpinning of the collection. The massacre, its meaning and the intentions behind it, as well as the failures by the Indians within it, hang over the poems in the book like ghosts, like mist. Here, from the outset, title and theme are presented clearly, which allows Ortiz the room to expand upon them in the remainder of the collection since they don't need to be repeated for clarification. This also presents the sequence of the book: a brief prose-poem on the left hand page that highlights the thematic content of the poem that will follow, the poem itself on the right hand page. For example, the history of the massacre at Sand Creek is presented on page eight and page nine contains the untitled poem that reads:
has been a burden
of steel and mad
but, look now,
there are flowers
and new grass
and a spring wind
from Sand Creek.
That is the poem in its entirety and there are several key factors at work here that are representative of the collection and how it operates as a whole. First, by presenting a larger scale picture of the theme as a prose-poem on the preceding page it frees Ortiz up to not use certain words. He does not have to use "massacre" or "blood," having shown what happened already. Thus, the name "Sand Creek" takes on a meaning and life of its own here. Flowers, grass and a spring wind have a very different feel and meaning to them as they grow and pass over the old bones and blood filled soil of Sand Creek. America too, takes on a meaning made both large and distinct by the prose account. By laying out the theme first, Ortiz can use fewer words to generate a heightened sense of emotional pitch and meaning. Had he excluded his prose-poem on page eight, all that it contained would need to precede or be integrated into the poem shown above. That would weaken the words and images that are in that poem, as they would be surrounded by an excess of things that did not need to be there. Ortiz keeps those things in the poem indeed, but they hover within the words or on the outside because of what has already been said. This also serves to unify the collection. Each page flows into the next because of the prose-poem-followed-by-poem-layout. Taken as a whole, every poem that follows the one above is an extrapolation of what was already given. This is Ortiz showing the permutations and effects of both history and of his own perception of it. It is also a poet knowing what to leave out in order to say the most.
Take for example the poem on page thirty-seven. Ortiz precedes it with, "La Junta: in this town, we are not dangerous anymore, and the townspeople know it; they volunteer nothing, no compassion, no love" (36). The themes for the coming poem have been presented, even the setting is laid out. With that taken care of Ortiz is free to delve deeply into the ideas he has brought out in this prelude. In the poem itself he writes:
especially the white
ones, ordinary men,
They just don't know anymore.
They are soothed by it.
Their only comfort and safety.
They know us.
we would be mad,
and so they gave us plenty.
Little paper cups so full of knowledge.
to wander, lost.
To seek for safe shadows
that will remind us
of what we knew before.
But we will not yearn.
So full of knowledge.
The poem continues past that, but the poem can be looked at with just what is given here. What should be noted first is the large open physical spaces that Ortiz uses in these lines. They hang like pauses, yet continue the line after the commas or periods used. Ortiz is purposefully slowing you down, almost chanting out his meditation on the lines for you. It is a careful construction, one that leaves you with the visual impression of open fields, open roads and desolate towns. And yet, Ortiz has had to say nothing of the sort. But when he uses the word "these" he is at once referencing the white men, the town of La Junta on the preceding page and the townspeople. Because much of that work was done in the prose-poem introduction to this poem, the single word "these" carries a weight all its own, a weight that is heavy with meaning. Ortiz' poem has all the marks of sculpture. All the empty spaces carve out room for the next word and breath. And there is rhythm to this poem. Take the last stanza and how the words move from "left" to "morning" and beyond. It is a careful rhythm, much like Hank Williams in "Ramblin' Man" or "Alone and Forsaken," two songs whose themes and emotions are echoed hauntingly here. By the time Ortiz has written "And now / we're free / to wander, lost. / To seek for safe shadows" he has built up enough narrative tension as well as thematic content to give you a poem of great emotional force, while at the same time making serious commentary on what is driving that force. And he does it with skill and vigor. He calls forth the same desolate wandering and yearning Williams does in "Lost Highway" and because of the socio-political underpinnings of the poems, takes it one step further.
Williams can sing "I am a rolling stone / all alone and lost" with a desolation few singers can match. But Ortiz is able to grab that same desolation and movement in his poems, while calling back to the opening poem's "spring wind" above Sand Creek. Desolation can also lead to re-growth, being lost can also imply being found Ortiz seems to say. Ortiz matches Williams' lines, "For a life of sin / I have paid the cost / When I pass by / all the people say / there goes another boy down the lost highway," nearly note for note in the above poem. But his use of physical space coupled with the idea that they were given knowledge, yet not the compassion or love from the its preceding prose segment, leaves his lost highway as something far beyond what Williams imagined. This does not necessarily make Ortiz the better of the two, just different and for other reasons, yet it poses Ortiz as thematically and structurally much closer to Williams than anything Smith dared to write.
Again, Ortiz is able to deliver substantial weight to his poems by forcing restraint upon his lines. Take for example the poem on page eighty-seven that begins, "Probably, / they didn't know / that walls / would be constructed, / that wars were to make / these men possible." There is action hovering outside the text here, words and powers that inform the "they" and the "walls." Simon Ortiz leaves you the room to pry into those words through the space he creates around them, space created by leaving out other words. And yet, because this poem has been informed by the poems that precede it, there is already enough built in your mind to know who "they" are and what those "walls" stand for. If the poems were not so intricately linked, these words would be less. Instead they are rendered a great power in the space given to them and within the space around them. So that, when Ortiz finishes the poem by saying "but then, they did not think, / they would have survived / if they did not know arrogance / and would have to share reports / of history which now rise / before us as mutant generations" (87), you are left filled and thinking, cleaved open by a poem of exceptional depth. Not a word is out of place or vague, everything counts and bears necessary weight. Accessible and yet abstract enough to take place beyond the pages of the poem, as if the poem is simply a recording of what is, Ortiz has given a world and a history in less than twenty lines.
By leaving out the psuedo-avant-garde wordplay of Smith's poems, or the repetition of word and sound along a line as Smith does, Ortiz gives his poems a depth and breadth unfathomable in Smith's work. Ortiz executes his delivery in a timing and cadence that is nothing short of remarkable. Each poem builds upon the next, until the book itself becomes something far larger than it would appear at first. This leaves you feeling opened and reflective after having traveled the path with Ortiz. How could one not be moved by the lines, "If they could have / dreamed untroubled / and gentle dreams, / dreams would have been roads" (75)? Or, "even Black Kettle / did not turn away; / he withered / like a dying root. / Even winter / knows no such sorrow. / Whiskey end. / Poisoned" (49)? For a life of sin, indeed. He has delivered a fallen Indian chief's soul here, but has also charted America's loss in it as well. Because Black Kettle was the chief in charge at Sand Creek, that name rings within the poem as a sad and lonesome song, a fallen man hanging on to a memory as dead as his relatives. What should be noted here too, is that Ortiz does not use poem titles at all, allowing the poems to stand as a titled collection and at the same time as pieces on their own thematic merit. While they are individually distinct poems, they are part of a collective and by not naming the poems that aspect of collectivity is reinforced.
While an entire essay could have been devoted to Ortiz' book, it was important to show his poems' power by what they are not: excessive, overly wordy intellectual exercises devoid of strength. That is Smith's work and by posing the two opposite each other and against the backdrop of Hank Williams' songs both poets successes or failures are brought into a clear light. Not to mention Williams' own songwriting, which in the annals of American music stands as one of the most accomplished and powerful marks on that landscape. If Smith seemed to believe that Williams was representative of an America that is lost, challenged, singing and half-mad in its ragged beauty, Ortiz was the poet who captured that fully.
In the end Frank O'Connor's words come to mind. "The personification of the harp as a woman," O'Connor wrote of a line of Joyce's, "naked and weary of men's fumbling fingers, reminds me somewhat of the fat beginning to congeal about an otherwise excellent mutton chop. In literature certain dishes are best served cold--and these may be taken to include all material descriptions; others that have to do with passion and mood should come to us piping hot" (The Lonely Voice; pg.117).
Hot, and without the vanilla.
* * *
Review by Review by John MacLean
Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating…
Review by Review by John MacLean
"Sooner or later, we must learn to live in the same world as our colons" -Gene Logsdon
By William Hastings, Editor, Industrial Worker Book Review
JJ Grey is a musician from North Florida. …
By Steve Davenport
Once I had a sorrow/ Long as a rainbow/ Crooked…
By Ron Cooper
Like most people, I do not answer the telephone when it rings at suppertime,…
By Michael Gills
My cousin found a hand-grenade in a Camp Robinson stock pond that summer,…
By Patrick Michael Finn
My older cousin Irene—we called her Reenie for short—got married six months…
By Michael Gills
Summer Faye arrived like a freight train from…
By Eric Miles Williamson
Let Your Children Be Taught by Idiots
I read a statistic nearly 30 years ago, when I was in college in California, that shocked me so…
By Eric Miles Williamson
What I've been hearing from literary types is a lot of whining. Literary authors published by small presses piss and moan about being underpublished (and we know who they are), victims of some vast…