David Hadbawnik

American Rambler

Dale Smith
Thorp Springs
$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 true—there 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, Haniel Long.

And Smith's fine ear allows him to call upon them ever more sensitively and subtly than merely enumerating them:

Europeans hacked
from main root
           to float 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 line—a 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, beckoning—just 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, transpire—this 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 poems—flashes 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" him irrevocably.

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 many others.

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
            wall painted
            shadows under
feet meet granite
           smoke lifts

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 ritual—one thinks of sections of H.D.'s Trilogy here—and 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 point.

And along the way there are gems of such clarity and insight, such as the simple

it's not enough
to imagine it
only the whole body
knows what took place
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

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 of us.

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 here—that 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.


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