Black Hole Factory
by Eric Smith
University of Tampa, $14, 75pp.
Yes, poetry changes the world; of course it does. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t believe that to be true, but with the growing number of MFA programs creating a growing number of professional poets (an oxymoron?), poetry’s value as art is forced to compete with its value as work. In his debut poetry collection, Eric Smith’s perspective on poetry and what it offers to society is refreshingly self-aware, honest, and self-deprecating. Frequently in this book, we see Smith stage intellectual arguments against poetic traditions and assumptions, like in “Reading the Classics,” when poetry un-Romantically has Smith’s speaker bailing on a teenage date in favor of reading at home, even though “even then you knew; poetry is never as good as sex.” Again and again, Smith bravely points to poetry’s lack, making an argument against its validity as “work.” For example, in a number of poems, Smith’s speakers fascinatedly gaze at people doing real work – digging in soil or crawling under houses or organizing tools in a work shed – and in the context of all this labor, poetry-as-profession is sometimes left in a corner trying to defend and justify itself. In “Melon,” we are given a strange legend about a boy masturbating into a cantaloupe and fathering a weird “redneck homunculus,” and it’s not impossible to read the tale as a surreally self-deprecating Ars Poetic, especially as the speaker confesses his preference for the “florid lie” over an actual cantaloupe his grandmother “coaxed out of the earth.” More interestingly, in the context of other of Smith’s comments on personal and cultural alienation, these meditations on work, labor, and value take on acquire a deeper resonance as the book progresses. In “Of a Feather,” for example, Smith’s existential anxieties expand to a national scale after seeing airport workers using shotguns to prevent snowy owls from invading a plane’s space. What’s more, the poem achieves more than its dumbfounded comment on the absurdity of modern reality in the context of the book’s deep cultural skepticism. Just as the speaker in “Of a Feather” moves through fear to a profound uncertainty of societal structures, Smith’s poems questioning the nature of work and the value of poetry-as-profession make difficult and timely revelations about what it means to be alive right now.
However, just as frequently as Smith provides us with metacognitive criticisms of poetry-as-profession, we see the poet’s ego melt away and submit to the greater truth of a moment in a great number of poems. In fact, just as many poems seem to point to poetry’s culpability as a source of alienation, a good number of other poems enact the belief that a vividly new view of reality holds the only salvation we can hope for. Smith shows us a sandhill crane as “a wineskin sloshing on stilts,” and in this gesture of framing reality with equal amounts of exactitude and mystery, the reader understands a hopeful possibility for life and experience. In “Three Hundred Byzantine Horse Skulls,” Smith speaks of that part of us “which aches for the earth / and what it offers,” but because of monotony’s talent for dulling experience, the only path toward reconciliation lies through mystery and (one might even say) poetry.
In a different way, Smith rearranges experience into a number of personally particular mythologies as a way of creating meaning where none seems to exist. In fact, creation stories play a recurring role in the book, and at different points Smith imaginatively recasts bowling alleys, muscadine orchards, and math-book story problems as sites of explanation and origin. We might be “a parade of shutters reset / by the twisting hydraulics of pin-setter // machines,” or the story might be simpler – just “a seed [that] slipped / into a fist of earth, and made from this hunger another.” Either way, the old myths no longer account for the particular flavors of our contemporary experience, and Smith’s poetry offers new and fruitful ways of understanding ourselves.
Behind it all, however, is a sneaking skepticism regarding the entire venture, which makes Black Hole Factory that much more tender, believable, and true.