its ghostly workshop

Reviewed by Jeffrey Beck, Kean University

9 may 2013       archive

Its Ghostly Workshop is aptly titled: a work of haunting poetic craftsmanship. And what kind of haunting is it? Ron Smith constructs the seven sections and 45 poems in the volume deliberately to haunt—with the specters of history, poetic tradition, boyhood memory, palpable doubt, and transient pleasures. Edward Teller, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Pauline Bonaparte, Mickey Mantle, Jesse Owens, Leni Riefenstahl, and other ghosts make their apparitions in these lyrics, which layer historical facts with poignant, present desires, and frequent allusions to artistic monuments. It is a heady haunting, always with humor and poetic skill.

In Dickensian fashion, Smith begins his volume with a forbidding ghost of the past, Edward Teller (the father of the Hydrogen Bomb), in "Edward Teller's Leg." The poem is set on a Mediterranean cruise ship in October 1957, when Lois and Cliff Schroeder happened to meet Teller and his wife Augusta—coincidentally, at the time of the Sputnik launch. The poem, narrated in the voice of Cliff Schroeder, recalls Teller announcing Sputnik to his companions, and telling them that the Corinth channel could be widened with "a few bombs," if the people there could be moved for several days for a "holiday." The narrator, who tells of his love with Lois, also recalls Teller removing his prosthetic leg (the result of a streetcar accident years before), swimming in the sea, and hopping back up the ladder "with that look / of troubled satisfaction, that look that said, / I have figured it out, and they will have to listen" (2, ll. 27-30). Here, the haunting is provided by both the contrast of the Schroeders' human love and Teller's unworldly pursuit of geothermal nuclear power, and the metonomy of the hollow leg, a piece of an anguished emptiness eased only by destruction.

This is just the first of a cast of maimed and tormented ghosts that disturb history and the reader's imagination in this collection. Hitler and Goebbels will appear in "A Leni Riefenstahl Triptych," Ezra Pound will make his "Fascist Salute," St. Peter will kill Simon Magus with a prayer in "A Wizard in the Forum," and a nameless couple in the French Quarter will torture each other with dismissals, Hurricanes, and jealousy in "Come On In, Come On Along." These are troubled spirits.

If the vexed spirits of history people the collection, artistic masters and monuments enjoy similar prominence. Poems address famous artists and their works constantly: Poe's desperate, but passionless courtship with the widow Sarah Shelton in 1848; Pound's disastrous turn to Fascism and his time at the U.S. Army District Training Center at Pisa; the specter of T.S. Eliot pursuing the Southern poet Smith himself; the botched treatment of John Keats by Dr. James Clark in Rome, and Joseph Severn's presence during the burning of Keats's furniture ; Antonio Canova's sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte as Venus in the Galleria Borghese; the Caravaggio paintings in the Uffizi Gallery; and others. Smith writes with what Eliot called the poet's "historical sense," a deep knowledge of Western literature and art, and the reader will frequently recognize literary and historical allusions from the Classics forward. But there is more than art history here.

The rarified learning of Its Ghostly Workshop is never irksome, as the poet counterpoints it with a strong brew of acerbic wit and earthly pleasure. A good example is "Galleria Borghese, August," a poem in which erudition is overmastered by humor and sheer passion:

Today, the place is full of Ledas
getting laid. Leda con il Cigno, ancient,
on loan from the Capitoline, apathetically
endures her languid swan. My mother
used to say, Some people can make anything
          And here's another Roman Leda,
also bland. Or, to give the sculptor some credit,
maybe stunned. And her bird's neck coils,
a serpent about to strike, its vivid, lust-saturated
eye pushing directly into her empty one. Webbed
claws dig Yeatsian into a draped leg.
                                                 We are
revived in this cool labyrinth of rape,
of unconvincing acquiescence. Our outrage
thrills us—your eyes wider from beauty's
preposterous assaults, our tongues eager
to wrestle with each other, wit
fumbling away once more at
the Gordian knot of ecstasy. (41, ll. 1-18)

This is Ron Smith at his best, loving art but mocking it with gritty wisdom, bored but digging "Yeatsian" into authentic lines, and propelling immediate passion beyond wit alone. Like any fine poem, "Galleria Borghese, August" is dynamic in its movement and memorable. The "Galleria" is not just vaguely memorable, but profoundly so, a sweet, hot moment in a chill room to be shared with a lover.

And similarly dynamic is the movement of the volume itself from the literary and historical, from the grandeurs of Rome, Washington, Berlin, to the boyhood memories of the poet himself, to teenage games of football and baseball with their innocent ardors and brutality. So we delight in the boyish idolatry of the poet who admired the 1961 Yankees, the famous Mantle-Maris team, as "Gods not men, those men," the memories of perfect hits at football practice, of the "dirt-hugging laser" baseball that toppled Smith at third, and of the double-teaming of an old football coach. In all of these cases, Smith seldom rests on boyhood nostalgia alone, juxtaposing it with innocence lost, with adult weaknesses, with the pains of aging. So in "The Yankees," for example, the young speaker's baseball idolatry is shattered by the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, and racist attacks on black children. In almost every poem, the reader will have the rich but aching feeling that there is more going on. To understand, "The Anecdote of the Half-Rubber," for instance, it helps to know that Smith is parodying Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar," to know that Stevens wrote the famous jar poem in 1918 while staying in Johnson City, Tennessee, to know that Don Johnson (the poet to whom Smith dedicates his "Anecdote") lives in Johnson City, and to know that the poem is based on a concocted game with a broom handle and a half of a rubber ball, which was played at the Sports Literature Association meeting in Johnson City in 2007. Oh, for a footnote, or maybe ten! Even Smith's most innocent poems often require further study to delve into the rich centers of the lyrics.

Its Ghostly Workshop ends with the title poem, an advice poem to Smith's grandson on life and creativity. As a good craftsman, the poet offers astute advice on inviting imagination through solitary moments: "Every now and then / empty what we are pleased to call / your mind. … /A long walk on an abandoned / railroad track can do the trick" (73, ll. 8-10, 15-16). As in other poems of the collection, Smith urges the reader to ponder the difference between perceptions and facts, to understand the visionary nature of plain vision, and to hold onto facts with a light grasp, as the "ghostly workshop" of truth. "Be always prepared / to let it go. Let it go," says the poet in his final advice, but the reader is still hanging on to the words. My only negative reflection on Its Ghostly Workshop is that the copy I received did not represent well LSU's normally good work in the print shop: four of the pages were creased during the printing and partially illegible. Otherwise, the poetic craft in the collection is masterful, haunting the reader's memory with pleasure.

Smith, Ron. Its Ghostly Workshop: Poems. Southern Messenger Series. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2013. Paper $16.95. 76 pp. + xii. ISBN: 978-0-5030-6.

Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey Beck

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