A Journal of poetry and kindred prose

The Umbrella Book Review

Settling for Beauty

Poems by J. D. Smith, Cherry Grove Collections, 2005
by Ann E. Michael

This is the second poetry collection by J.D. Smith of Washington D.C., and it offers work worth dwelling upon. Settling for Beauty, taken from the last line of Smith’s poem “As Art Springs from a Wound,” is an apt title for a book taken up with what it is we seek, take for granted, or feel resigned to accept. Personally, I like the shorter poems here for their quizzical succinctness. Smith is comfortable and accomplished with verses of under 20 lines—some of them exhibit a sonnet-like completeness, including a turn or a turning-back, even though they are not formal poems.

Many of the longer poems also exhibit series of elegant movements through well-observed lists, resulting in a philosophical lyric mode that seems just right, tonally, for speculation and reflection. From “Briefing”:

Yours is the work of the homely friend,
who, when the others get asked to dance
and have the chance of getting laid,
watches the coats and purses,
makes sure nothing’s slipped in the drinks.
The coats, the purses, the drinks
would probably be just fine,
but this fictitious sense of mission
is conferred by the well-favored
in a pre-emptive strike against their guilt.

Smith compares this guilt to giving an insignificant quarter to a panhandler “it won’t really help” and continues the poem, now that we have information on useless acts, with a line of activities that lead gracefully toward a kind of personal erasure. The poem closes with the awareness that “thousands more will come to imagine,/as you once did,/that when they pull a lever, it will count.”

In many of these poems, a dark shiver runs beneath the text. The shortest poems are almost aphoristic, as is perhaps the wont of most short poems; such pieces as “Chest X-Ray,” “After Housework,” “Bequest,” “Divorce,” and “Sweater” are brief and painful in their accuracy. Here is “Sweater” in its entirety:

This wool is the closest I can come
to the distant fold’s
fellow-feeling, winter warmth.

But I may yet know
a claw’s election,
the raw entry of teeth.

Everywhere, wolves must be fed.

Smith is also adept at recording, mourning, and celebrating the environments around him (the natural world), although little of this work can be dubbed “nature poetry.” The fungi that unfurl from damp wood, the exacting description of soil and weeds at a work site, the imagined but believable journey of a drop of water inspired by a line of Psalm 22, the fallen twig’s “singular confluence/of xylem and phloem,/small sap, tender bark” and the paradoxical but scientifically-possible drowned fish in the poem by that name are fine examples of Smith’s eye for detail. He also possesses the poetic vocabulary needed to get such imagery across with clarity and, occasionally, with exhilaration. This quality is an excellent thing to discover in any poem.

While this is a fine book, I want to make two criticisms that I hope will not deter anyone from exploring its many virtues. One is the existence of some typographical errors, “inaminate” being perhaps the most jarring. These are an editors’ responsibility, and they crop up in almost all books I read lately (including my own). From my high horse as book-reviewer, I’m taking this chance to bemoan the loss of the professional proofreaders of old.

My second criticism is more specific to this collection, although—again—it’s an issue that appears in many a new book. A few of the poems in Settling for Beauty seem not quite at the last draft—close enough to being wonderful that I feel slightly annoyed they got into this book in their current incarnations... I wish the author had said “No, not yet;” it would have made for a slightly shorter, but stronger, book.

The best poems in Settling for Beauty are complex, although they don’t always appear to be; some of Smith’s short poems surprise us in just a few lines. When the longer poems are working well (“Briefing,” “For Bad Wine,” and “The Jazz Clock” in particular), they send out a thread that changes texture enough to keep us tactilely engaged as we wind our way toward the end. I think of Ibsen’s suggestion that the poet’s task “is to make clear to himself, and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions.” Smith’s poems keep the reader in this temporal world where we are asking difficult things of our lives and the lives of others, and that process becomes part and parcel of his work.

Ann E. Michaels is a poet, essayist, librettist and educator who lives in Eastern Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College and is a rostered Artist-in-Education with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and in newspapers, family magazines, poetry anthologies, educational and academic publications as well as on radio.

Ann E. Michael's chapbook of poems, More than Shelter, is available from Spire Press.