Simmons B. Buntin reviews R.T. Smith's Split the Lark: Selected Poems
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
Spend a lazy summer day at most any farm with a split-wood pole fence or other ramshackle pedestal and you're bound to see Sturnella magna, the Eastern meadowlark. You'll probably hear it first-the smooth, clear see-you, see-yeeeer-but you'll soon spot the bright yellow breast, the uneven black V.
Meadowlarks prefer open, grassy areas, especially in winter, and especially when they migrate. Their migrations can be short, from southeastern Ontario as near south as Vermont, for example. Or they can be long journeys: from mid-Ohio to Venezuela, say, or from Kentucky to the Yucatan. And while they migrate in bands of up to a dozen, the males especially are an otherwise solitary and watchful bird: sentinels to the fields before them, bards that sing with the time-tuned smoothness of rolling hills and, occasionally, sudden alarm.
So it is with the poet, editor, and teacher R.T. Smith in his newest collection, Split the Lark: Selected Poems, published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. For this book is a migration, from Smith's earliest work and habitat to his newest, and farthest reaching.
Split the Lark is divided into four sections, numbered. While it is tempting to think of each as a season, within which Smith's verse migrates from one place to another and then back, the chapters are not so compartmentalized. And yet, under the watchful eye of meadowlark-of the poet and the many true voices of his poem's narrators-there is a definite geography to each. The geography is deliberate, as is each word of each poem. In fact, the only fault of the book may be this deliberateness; i.e., that the choice of poems for each section is too selective. While these are Selected Poems, knowing the rich library of poetry that Smith and Salmon Press could choose from (books like From the High Dive, The Cardinal Heart, and even the relatively new chapbook, The Names of Trees), I hoped for more poems and a larger collection.
But poetry in general and Split the Lark specifically are not about "more." Just as a single yellowflash sighting of meadowlark followed by that warm, distinguishable call will make your heart skip a beat and then pull you into the zone that may be described only as "at one with nature," the selected poems are sudden and then soothing and always right. They are not, then, overdone, either in quality or quantity.
I'll be forced, it appears, to await Smith's Collected Poems.
Returning to the four chapters, they may be alternatively labeled-and roughly so-as: 1 - the people of indigenous America; 2 - a natural history of the South; 3 - birds within and among us; 4 - Ireland. The beauty in the book's numbering system is that each reader comes up with his or her own subtitle. Or none at all. Still, much like 2's "The Names of Trees,"
I remember the thrill of entry
Within each of the book's sections the reader can see a whole world in and of the subset of poems. Rather than fragmenting the book, however, these somewhat chronological chapters are passages, giving definition for and direction to the migration. We read the poems, and we read many aloud as poetry should be read, and then we rest between the sections. We fly and survey the familiar and yet unknown path below us and then we land and rest our eyes and minds and sun-seared souls.
Smith's migration, which as we read it becomes our own, begins with "Old Photograph (1910)," which struck me at first as the wrong introduction for the book. I'm a strong believer-in poetry, prose, and music-in an introduction. Not necessarily formal, mind you, but one that pulls the reader in, sets the tone, prepares us for the journey. But after reading the first section and then the full book, I see that it is the right beginning. First, it's literally a photograph, a kind of pretense of the trip we're about to undertake. Second, it is connected in a subliminal manner, I think, to the book's last poem, "Lilting," which is then a kind of return. Most importantly, however, it identifies the connection between person, place, and time that is essential for every poem in Split the Lark, and for the book itself. Indeed, the relationships of human to human, human to nature (including the city), and ultimately human to human's place in time are crucial to the full body of Smith's work.
In the second section, representing work that is largely newer than that of the first, the reader becomes fully absorbed in the craft of the poems and in the intricate skill with which Smith has delicately woven each word, each line, each stanza, as in "This Invasion:"
Now the shredded foliage
Migration is hard work. It is hard for the traveler and can be brutally hard on the place, as those who witness the cicadas in this poem would attest. As the reader moves through the second chapter of Split the Lark, though, we see that hard work pays off. It pays off in the celebrations of such poems as "Bear Mischief," "Nightmusic," and "Jubilee." And it pays off in the finale of the section, the poem "Sourwood," one of Smith's finest. But here there is a bit of a paradox, for we should be at the halfway point of the migration, meaning that we should be summering or wintering and then heading back to our point of origin. Suddenly there is a nervous murmer, and
who will tell the bees?
We've realized that we are, indeed, at the halfway point of the migration, but now we know-alarmed by the change in song, a new note-that the migration is longer than we thought. We're halfway to our destination. While an ordinary traveler would be weary by this realization, that's not the case with Split the Lark because-like any migratory path-instinctually we know the way. We've somehow known it all along.
The third section confirms our continued journey with the book's namesake, "Split the Lark." It provides further insight, too, as we reach deep within for our own song, leaving the skeptic behind. And it speaks to a different audience, of sorts, as well:
Savage as a raven's beak,
We cannot break the poems, the sections, the book itself into tiny parts in the hopes that by analyzing each we've found the source of the inspiration, craft, and art. That lets me off the hook just a bit because I don't have to say something like, "The slant rhymes, coupled with the complex meter supported by assonance and alliteration, form the literary basis for the success of Smith's poems." Smiths poems soar because they are poetry, exceedingly well crafted and honed by keen eye and sense of place.
Sense of place brings us to the fourth and final section, and is both the final and farthest leg of our migration. We've glided through our own familiar territory, Smith's natural habitat, into a land that is new and promising. It is also, at times, abrupt because it is a real place. We hear the meadowlark's shrill cries of alertness in such poems as "Passage to Kilronan" and "Full Moon with Bells," which represent Smith's finest craftsmaking. Listen:
Passage to Kilronan
On the morning boat from Rossaveal
Split the Lark: Selected Poems sings. Its notes spring from a source that, like the meadowlark's own voice, is undefinable yet authentic. Smith's migration of poetry is as comfortable as the instinct to nest, as true as the cardinal directions, as fresh as flight.
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