Monthly Archives: June 2012

A Survival Guide: Smith Blue, by Camille Dungy

ImageSmith Blue, by Camille Dungy. Crab Orchard Series in Poetry/Open Competition Award. Crab Orchard Review, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 2011. ISBN-13:978-0-8093-3031-7.

When you marry an ambitious poet with solid craft and intense passion, you almost invariably get a great book. Perhaps the most intriguing poetry to cross my desk this year is Camille Dungy’s Smith Blue. I admire Dungy’s work not only for what she accomplished in this offering from the Crab Orchard Poetry Series, but for what she attempts, no less than to “Wizard a track through our own screaming weeds,” a quote found in her opening citation from Gwendolyn Brooks (“XV,” The Womanhood). Following Brooks’ admonition that there are “no magic or elves/Or timely godmothers to guide us. . . ” Dungy cobbles together an extraordinary view of modern life, it’s foibles and distractions (“At Costco, everything comes cheap”/A Massive Dying Off) and most of all, its harsh realities and tremendous losses.

Much of this work is elegy, whether societal (“I ate the last orange in Nebraska /Post-Modified Food) or personal (“The poet’s hands degenerate until her cup is too heavy”/Arthritis is one thing, the hurting another), but none of it is polemical in the least. Dungy accomplishes this with a breathtaking grasp of the details, large and small, of contemporary life weighed down by war, economic distress, political intransigence, and material envy, yet she avoids the merely partisan by turning every personal loss into an observation about a greater grief, and every social issue into a challenge to be lived out, worked out, in individual choices that cut to the bone.

“This is not the year for palliatives. It is not the year for knowing what to do,” she writes in the latter poem, which begins with the suffering of arthritic hands, and ends with the trenchant observation: “Many are dying for want of a cure, and the poet is patient/and her hands cause the least of her pain. ” In between, there is a cataloguing of ills–burning women in schoolyards…tarped bodies on runways and in restaurants…three ancient cities met their ruin…third and fourth tours–and a warning not to let one newsreel image slide into the next: “This is not one thing standing for another.”

See each moment, each disastrous occurrence; notice everything, the poet tells us, though it hurts to feel the weight of the world’s grief.

“…Shame fits comfortably/as my best skirt, and what can I do/but walk around in that habit? Turn the page (After opening the New York Times I Wonder How to Write A Poem About Love).

Come back to the Earth itself, “to the rock, dissimulated by the rush but still/loved. …Before things are muddied/before/the turbulence recalled by walls that they have built” (How She Keeps Faith).

Change is inevitable, and not all of it is doom. Some of it is human spirit rising up, “to get to the places beyond the places we know. This is the way, /how we have always found more . . . . ” and, in case we missed the point, there are lessons from our elders’ wisdom:

“–and of course you won’t let me see you/ neglecting to serve,whatever that means/don’t let me catch you neglecting to serve.” (Prayer for P)

It was about here that I saw the thread of American poetry running clear, Robert Frost to Ms. Brooks to Lucille Clifton to Camille Dungy. I have said nothing yet about Dungy’s craft, but she does not remind one without cause of those American originals: Clear, concise, articulated lines of fierce imagery draw one in from the first page.

From a tiny, impossibly elegant butterfly, its founder and namesake tragically lost in the practice of his calling, comes a title that is appropriate to the huge scope and delicacy of this work. California in all its diverse beauties and unfathomable contrasts breaks into life on these pages; the whole of the human dilemma whispers through it’s lines. Camille Dungy is among the most accomplished of our poets, a treasure we must not let slip. Call her an antidote for the times.

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