(Carnegie Mellon, 2013)
The Fortunate Era, Arthur Smith’s fourth full-length collection of poetry, proves challenging, as many of these poems are unflinching, headlong gazes into death and the concept of what lies behind perception and time, behind realities detectable via the senses and the perfunctory notions how life passes. Reading this book feels much like a pilgrimage that leads to an ablutionary place, a fulfilling yet harrowing journey. These poems are anything but sententious—they are surreal, wise, and deeply mysterious. If they don’t exactly attempt to clarify “the static / The mind makes of death so close / At hand” (“Tracking Down the Music of the Spheres”), they at least acknowledge this dissonance with surprising imagery, musicality, and consistent precision. They are powerfully imaginative and self-possessed.
Indeed, the book fittingly opens with a quotation from Russell Hoban’s remarkable post-apocalyptic novel, Riddley Walker, part of which reads “How cud any 1 not want to get that shyning Power back from time back way back?” Here the protagonist recognizes and laments the destruction of his own world, the emptiness he inhabits now, but there is a trace of pleasure that alloys his pain, for he is granted access, at least a vision, to what was. The Fortunate Era similarly calls on memory to revisit pleasures of the past, but the speakers of these poems almost always leverage these pleasures with blunt recognitions of the unstable present and, in a few cases, a brittle future. Intoxicating and beautifully strange, these pieces cull meaning from speculative ideas about what’s real or illusive, as in the opening poem “Paradise,” in which the narrator almost casually addresses his experience in and abandonment of a version of heaven:
Mornings, like waking to someone’s scent
You hadn’t yet met and married for life,
Though I didn’t know that then—the night cooled
Muskmelons rolling belly-up to the stars,
And by late afternoon the dusk-colored
Dust of apricots on everything.
From that earth, my body
Assembled itself, and when the veil dropped,
I tried to say what I saw.
The narrator then says that he’s attempted to tell people about this place: “You tell people . . . over and over, / And it’s really crazy, they won’t believe you. / All that sugar coaxed out of clay and you / Can’t even give it away. . . .” Thus the narrator walks away from the excess and this perfect place, the storehouse of memory becomes a panoply of references by which to gauge how one’s life has changed.
In “Sans Soleil,” a bleak and powerfully dystopian vision that begins “Once in the future, in an underground cramped city / Below the frozen one that used to be Toronto, I found / Myself walking through nurseries drizzling / With ferns and banks of pink azaleas,” the narrator quickly whittles these fecund images down to scene in which a mother beats her son, a son much bigger than she, with a wooden-soled shoe. Despite the “dozen vanilla bean pods,” the “bodegas and strawberries,” and a “pet store overrun with parrots,” the kaleidoscopic effect of the poem is stilled and silenced by the spectacle of the “mother’s rage” and the “boy’s acquiescence,” not to mention that the narrator’s own consent: “What can you do? This is the way / The world is going to work. Down here, everything occurs / In the present, now, which happens over and over / Because that’s all we have.”
Consider “What Song Hath the Creatures of the Field”:
Rabbits are aware when they are
About to have their throats slit.
They know when you walk back
To the cage with that in mind.
What a rotten feeling if your heart’s
Not in it. They squeal with a voice
That doesn’t belong to Easter,
But to a small, terrified mammal.
The poem then pivots interestingly into the childhood memory of the speaker’s mother singing as she baked. The narrator comes to terms with the violence of the natural world and with endings, forming a personal eschatology through memories of his origin.
“Valentine” is another remarkable poem that works with the disparity of memory’s brutality and the trust that memory itself induces transcendence:
Back then, for all I cared,
God could have been a spider
Glossy as a buttercup
Sunning in the garden
Of the first woman
Time gave me to
And then took back.
What I mean is, once, like ice,
Something pierced my heart
With a light
Every thin-stemmed flower after.
That’s how I think of God now,
Going back to her—
That immense and holy cold, an arrow
Not all is gloomy in The Fortunate Era. There are moments of levity, often masterfully intertwined in Smith’s imaginative wordplay, and there are poems, too, that end on genuinely joyful notes, as in “Of All People.” Ideas of diminishment, of feeling sculpted into insignificance embody this poem, and the narrator does not flinch from a haunting morbidity: “The same way my sister languishes / Somewhere in the western desert, / Devoured / by microscopic blue-green plants / Whose fronds make tatters of her lungs / And married her forever to the sands.” However, the narrator recalls his sister’s living joy—and this memory still exists in space-time, as
Somewhere Barry Manilow is blowing her a kiss
From a white limousine flying by us
On a steep grade in the mountains
Between the deserts
Of Reno and South Lake Tahoe.
Thus, the narrator does not give into her death—he subverts it by re-arranging that which ends the vision of one he’s loved and lost.
While leveraged with spare moments of humor, The Fortunate Era is a deeply serious, lucid book, elegiac and transcendent, a collection essential for those craving poems that allow the reader room to imagine beyond the page. There are no easy answers in this book, no mere mood pieces, and while a few of these poems recall the declarative, stark, and undaunted lyrics and narratives of Jack Gilbert, they acknowledge the sorrow born from the recognition of mortality and the loss of those close to the poet in ways this reader has never encountered. This collection’s depth, no matter how stygian at times, creates sources of transcendent and surreal vitality.