$10.00 / 95 pages / ISBN 0914476009
"...because there is a wilderness to change us"
With this haunting, astonishing statement in the title poem of his
modern epic American Rambler, Dale Smith takes us on a wild
ride through the subconscious of the American West. Astonishing because
we have come so far, done so much, to deny the existence of a wilderness,
settling and civilizing every last bit of territory, every byte of
cyberspace. Haunting because deep down we know this is not truethere
is a wilderness, whether it's "out there" somewhere
or, in fact, inside. A wilderness everyone must face. Perhaps it's
our past that has become a wilderness, corrupted and over-grown with
countless competing visions, yet still largely unexplored. Dale Smith
dares to explore it, with stunning results.
The title poem starts right out stating Smith's theme clear as Lew
Welch scribing his Wobbly Rock; this is an epic voice, not
that of a buddy sitting beside you at a bar although at times it's
that simple. This is a classic calling-upon of the muse in which Smith
specifically names his poetic predecessors (Olson, Dorn, Robert Duncan),
and those who have treated his subject, Cabeza de Vaca, before: Sauer,
And Smith's fine ear allows him to call upon them ever more sensitively
and subtly than merely enumerating them:
from main root
under sun into
devouring myth or image
carries forward its momentum on the strong hacked/root/float consonance
before gearing down to the next line where the sumptuous "devouring"
eats the rest of the linea display of the compact music that
all three of the poets Smith names have in common.
And "devouring myth or image" is an example of the way
Smith frequently manages to say more than he seems to be saying. Who's
getting devoured here? The line "floats" up at you like
a finger pointing, beckoningjust as on the next page the line
"that dreams made us Americans" doesn't want to let you
go merely by staying in the context of what Smith "means,"
but to strike out on its own, as Cabeza de Vaca did, as Smith does
here, break away from its qualifying "that" and simply assert:
"dreams made us Americans."
Not to retell a tale
but to compress through my body
the significant image
struck by this man
-significant that Smith makes a point of using the phrase "through
my body" as though he'll digest Cabeza and excrete him through
this poem; calling to mind Rilke's classic statement on his own poetics,
that poems come "only when [memories and images] have changed
into our very blood, into glance and gesture... no longer to be distinguished
from ourselves..." (Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge).
It is in this sense that Smith intends his own images to pass through,
transpirethis is not merely an intellectual exercise, but an
exploration of the figure of Cabeza de Vaca grounded in Smith's own
Texas childhood and memories. The extent to which he succeeds is apparent
in the feeling he manages to compress in the poemsflashes of
emotion and energy that are very physical in nature.
He concludes this invocation poem with that line "because there
is a wilderness to change us." When I came back to the book after
first reading I initially remembered "a wilderness to save us."
And that might ultimately be true, but Smith knows his Texas too intimately
to make that claim for it. Consider that the state of Texas executed
39 people in the year 2000 alone, including two on the same day
on August 9. One of those men, Brian Roberson, went down defiantly;
his last words were "Y'all kiss my black ass. Let's do it."
Texas is an outlaw place, in myth and image, and Smith's inclusion
of a detailed Bonnie and Clyde timeline in the back of the book is
a nod to this part of its history. But Texas is also an astonishingly
beautiful place, with a varied landscape of mesas and hills, breathtaking
streams, and the incredibly delicate Edwards Aquifer, one of the largest
underground bodies of water in the U.S., which allowed Spanish settlers
to build missions and strongholds such as the Alamo in the semi-arid
climate around San Antonio. A place with this many contradictions
could only be approached through the figure of a man like Cabeza de
Vaca, who embodied as profound and numerous contradictions.
As Smith notes, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca began as just another
in an already growing series of Spanish gold-seekers to set foot on
the new land. And he might have stayed that way, were it not for the
shipwreck that killed nearly everyone on his ship and left him to
wander this strange wilderness for nine years, "changing"
What Smith expresses so well is the sometimes peripheral sense one
has while walking down a street, driving on a road, sitting in a house,
that just beyond all the walls and wires of civilization lie rude
and beautiful nature in all its glory, so close one can feel it but
impossible to touch. That is, we can touch the grass, smell the cedar,
and taste the juniper that fill Smith's book, for example, but we
can't none of us really know what it means to stand in absolute relation
to that nature, that wilderness, filtered as it is though our various
modern conveniences. There is no "reward challenge" in Cabeza's
pilgrimage, whereby he can gain a picnic made up of the sponsor's
products, no "immunity challenge" whereby he might win succor
from his miserable fate.
But that's not to say that it's entirely impossible in modern day
America to enter the wilderness as completely as Cabeza. I'm reminded
of Chris McCandless, son of a wealthy WASP family, who gave away his
entire trust fund, burned cash and identification, and entered the
past at the exact rate of eternity, finding it in a shack in the Alaskan
wilderness outside Mt. McKinley in 1992, 24 years old. And who was
merely the latest and unluckiest in a series of adventurous souls
who have insisted on carving their own wilderness out of this vast
thing we call America, a sort of backward strain in the evolution
of the species, a line that must include John Muir and Thoreau, among
But even when Cabeza is not physically present in the poems here,
they're still just darn gorgeous.
for first sun
rise of summer
to mark stone
feet meet granite
The words rise ecstatic with color and detail yet serene as the smoke
whose movement they mimic, an absolute economy of sound as if one
were chanting them in a ritualone thinks of sections of H.D.'s
Trilogy hereand notice how the stanza wobbles on the
pegs of the single syllable lines: wait/hawk/orb/while/high
From this point on Smith seems to get closer to Cabeza, as what has
up to now been a documentary is becoming more and more an intimate
feature film (as Kenward Elmslie said, Smith is "directing a
movie" here), and it continues to intensify through what must
be Cabeza's "transformation" from Xtian conquistador to
blessed heathen, paralleled by the stunning transformation Smith undergoes
when on page 61 he takes on the persona of Cabeza, shifting to first
person after having described his subject in 3rd person up to that
And along the way there are gems of such clarity and insight, such
as the simple
it's not enough
It is after this slim, powerful stanza that Smith-as-Cabeza speaks to
the king no less movingly than Prospero speaking at once to king and
reader at the end of Tempest, here referenced too, in the lines
to imagine it
only the whole body
knows what took place
That we should be made
of limp wet meat
appears strange to me
as that we should be also
air & spirit
with its obvious tug of war between the Caliban and Ariel in each
And later evoking Cabeza the shrewd politician, the one who must
explain to king and court, upon his return after nine years of wandering,
his journey in such a way that they will allow him to re-enter courtly
life. He still has a career to look out for.
In an excellent Jacket
interview with Kent Johnson, Smith said:
"I think it's important to be a good finder, because you have
to train yourself, learn for yourself how to look. You have to intuit
some sense of connection and determine for yourself what's useful
to the art of the poem. The art of finding is possibly more important
than writing poetry right now."
Diane di Prima has spoken about the importance of a deep knowledge,
a field of study outside the realm of poetry that the poet brings
to the dance of words. That's one kind of finding. It has given Dale
Smith a powerful tool for critically examining the territory of his
own environment without descending into the platitudes of political
correctness. It's an uncovering of the hidden past that remains with
us still, a living example of Pound's "all times contemporaneous"
a revealing of the wilderness that constantly lies beneath the surface.
And it leads to the other kind of finding that Smith does herethat
is, a way to charge his plain-speech language with meaning and bring
Cabeza de Vaca, and with him the wilderness we all come from, to life.