Review | Moon Road by Ron Smith

Essence of Italy and Greece, England and the South, family and love and teaching boys. In Moon Road, Ron Smith moves between rural family portraiture and Greek myth with equal zest, bearing witness to the lovely and the ugly in this world. He fathoms the intrinsic nature of reality and makes poems about it with earthy stories and language, poems redolent of sweat, semen, and whiskey. Smith, native of Savannah, Georgia, teaches poetry, writes poetry, and wins prizes for poetry. His first book of poems, Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, taught us to expect colorful images—“A tractor snorts and clears its oily throat”and living characters. Smith’s mother taught him to settle an argument at the dinner table: “‘Make it a poem,’ she says sensibly, ‘and forget about it.’”

In “Autumn Drab” the poet swings like a trapeze artist from his drought-dulled yard to a memorable circus to his alcoholic uncle, while his imagination grapples with its vision of mortality: “What good is dying / if it can’t bring beauty?” All the senses combine to find parallels between a common weed, the redheaded aerialist’s smiling black teeth, smells of penned animals, and hands strong and horny. He shows us “bony Uncle Gus,” who brought the child to this circus and who “went on drinking himself into a rich / stench.” The drab autumn’s gaudy pokeweed, the grown speaker tells his love, soon will be gone:

“all its black-wine berries . . . ,
its arterial stems, its vaginal magentas 
vanished into a delicate frost glinting like stars 
in the sky under our feet.”

Smith uses vivid details to create pictures showing everyday people and their everyday landscapes. We sympathize with sorrows and struggles and pleasures of characters based perhaps on the poet’s family and friends. “Great Granddaddy” draws a lively and gently funny picture of a country funeral:       

I remember his displeased face in the coffin
            the only time I ever saw it, the face
of all those whiskey-smelling, laughing uncles,
with the mouth turned down, the jaw pushed back.

The gravestones blasted my eyes in the sun,
            dazed me at the edge of the weed-ragged hole.
The grownups dripped sweat. Granddaddy twisted his brow
up there near the white sky. I couldn’t breathe.

It looked so cool in the hole. The silver box
            went down. Why, why, why, said Brenda, her face
stuck in the neck of her new, red-cheeked husband.
On a stick David swung a dusty snake he said

he’d killed in a blackberry patch he wouldn’t show us.
            His dress shirt stained purple at the pocket
over his heart. Under the big shade tree
by the white church Uncle Haskell sat on a root

setting his hand on fire with lighter fluid
            for the children. He smiled
at the identical flames flickering in the wide eyes.

The vividness of Smith’s travel poems makes us feel we are there with him—or we wish we were. “Oxford” captures the delight of the American scholar on his longed-for first visit. Exhausted by his all-night journey but too excited to resist walking around “the city of my dreams,” he finally collapses into a nap—on his back, in the Dean’s garden behind Christ Church College, an appropriate place for a poet to rest: perhaps under the very tree where the Cheshire cat makes its appearances to Alice. (Charles Dodgson lived and lectured on mathematics at Christ Church; and, as Lewis Carroll, he wrote poems and stories to entertain the Dean’s daughters, Alice and her sister.)

Smith exults in British colloquialisms within the language Americans share, as when, on another morning, the hotel maid wakens him, then apologizes for having “just / knocked you up.” As he travels the Appian Way, Smith gives us the flavor of being a tourist in Italy, the discomforts, stresses, weariness, as well as his thrills of recognition at historic sites. The actual places known before only from his schoolboy’s Latin textbook or from works of British writers on their Grand Tours. Even in the midst of traffic congestion and crazy Roman driving, he muses on Dickens and what he must have thought when he came to Rome.

Smith’s poems set in Greece show his awareness of  travelers who have come before him, Homer and Byron, and Schliemann who uncovered those sites of Homer’s tale which Smith’s pilgrim reverently visits. In “Aetos” he tells us

It was July, too, when Schliemann came here
and became, they say, an archaeologist.
I take notes, know I’ll need more
than a shovel to find what I’m after. I stand
on the shoulders of giants and thus can see
what won’t work . . .   

Encounters with the natives sometimes puzzle and unsettle the traveler with unfamiliar language and customs, but he is touched by their warmth, their continued yearning toward his United States. He enjoys his surroundings, from the topless beauty on the beach to the remains of classical architecture. On Capri he finds the Villa of Tiberius “stretching up the hill / is simply a hill / with a few scattered stones, / a little world carted off by the minions of time . . .”  Gleefully he discovers unfamiliar wines and foods, delights in the sonority of the language: “Perciatelli, linguine, spaghettini, vermicelli / at a ristorante full of locals.” He revels in coming upon a tiny grocery store in a steep alley, “a tilting vìcolo hazy with skinny, evil-eyed cats,” where he buys olives and wine from an old lady who gives him a corkscrew. In “Rain and Amaro,” “hard, straightdown rain” cancels touring for a happy day in bed with his love and a bottle of Italian liqueur.

“Moon Road,” the book’s title poem, describes how the belated ferry out of Brindisi’s ugly harbor seems to follow a path made by the reflection of the full moon on the water. Even tired and cranky, the voyager believes the whole world lies before him, although he is older now than Odysseus when he died. The moon paves his road with gold. “At Phorkys” he presents the traveler reading Homer aloud “till my heart closes my throat. / . . . Odysseus weeps and so do we.”

“Epic” compiles grim images of bloody battle, death, destruction, grief—a collage of war scenes. Does it describe the chaos of Homer’s story or Aeschylus’s drama, or that of our own day? In other poems Smith depicts contemporary violence: “The Soldiers Caught the Boys Near the Top of the Hill,” “Lamartine at Jerusalem,” and “Holy Land.” The beauty of Smith’s language makes the hideousness of the subjects more shocking, as when the poet muses about the pretty waitress who has just finished serving her required two years in the Israeli army. Yair, his guide in Tel Aviv, has obviously done his military stint also:    

                                   She strides away with Yair’s purposeful gait, so unlike
           the coy saunter of Savannah girls who cannot imagine
                       their lovely legs blown into the tops of ficus trees
                                   one fine morning when a young man dressed handsomely
           in apocalypse boards a bus and makes even his bones holy shrapnel.

Smith also writes about writing. In “Finally,” the poet’s friend, a procrastinating poet, has died:

My friend was finally going to write those poems.
The mortician asked me why he chose poems.

No money in it, he said. Why not novels?
The truly living, I said, can’t close poems.
. . .
We had him burned. Then poured him on the rapids.
(Earth wheels fat narratives, but it slows poems.)          

Smith’s narrator sends his poems to a friend who says she likes them but they tell too much about farm life, too little about him. He sends her a note with “poems about slugs mating / and the hummingbirds,” written on

the postcard of Henry James glaring at this future
he’s glad he’ll never know.
. . .
James sits stiff in the past,
looking the insult of the lens square in the eye.

“Objectivity” draws on Smith’s experience as a teacher of boys to make an analogy to the effort of writing poetry. Using terms his track star understands, the speaker argues for objectivity over opinion. When the jock says objectivity “ain’t real,”

                                    Yes, yes, I say, and yet you push for it,
            the way you push for the perfect hundred
                        meters, the way you split the air to get
this thing that doesn’t exist. It isn’t
                                    winning the great sprinter goes for, is it?
            It’s faster and faster, better and better . . .

Smith’s writer makes a subtle comparison of his lover to a poem: “you stretching in this daylight, / winter white, touched by perfect black / . . . smooth / far beyond smoothness / of words . . .” “So Long Since I Have Put My Hand on You with This Pleasure” apologizes for the writer’s neglect while he “had shrunk inside my work.” The epigraph from Emerson, “We must hold hard to this poverty, however scandalous,” leads to the poem’s conclusion:           

Take me deeper
into what we come to
when we give up
everything for each other.
Forgive me, forgive me for thinking

I could live without you.

Ron Smith writes of grief, joy, and violence. His sensuousness, tenderness, and humor touch us with his humanity and sharpen our own.  

Ron Smith is Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. He is also the author of a previous collection of poems, Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (University of Florida Press, 1988). His work has appeared in The Nation, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, College English, and Kansas Quarterly.