J. D. Smith’s Labor Day at Venice Beach is a mid-life hymnal, one that begins with a son’s elegy and extends, in its latter portions, to the civic crisis of ongoing warfare. Between these explorations of the oikos and the polis, the familial hearth and the halls of state, Smith limns scenes from youth and anticipated age with the droll pithiness of a Philip Larkin and the compression of a haiku master. The overall effect is uncanny: although tonally varied, the poems seem postcards from a life carefully introspected and guardedly lived. Indeed, the Horacian piquancy of Smith’s stance—and his representation of seemingly autobiographical circumstances as archetypal, rather than indecipherably individual—adds heft to this, his third collection.
While Smith has won notice as an essayist and playwright, Labor Day at Venice Beach evinces his strength as a lyric poet, one who mixes the tenor of late empire with the appreciations of a measured aesthete. The collection begins with “First Memory,” set in the fields of Wisconsin and the backseat of a used Oldsmobile, and concludes with the titling poem, a catalogue of the corporeal circus on Venice Beach. Two general qualities—an urgent timeliness and the sharp recapitulation of scenes obliquely observed—mark both these poems and the collection as a whole. “First Memory” recalls a family trip to see “Plain Indians…/played by Italians” in a faux Native American festival that, in its absurd imposture, invokes the unseemly American practice of caricaturing indigenous cultures. Smith returns to la comédie humaine more benignly in the concluding poem as the narrator notes the fleshly miscellany of Venice Beach with its musclemen and surfers, its fitness enthusiasts and roller-blading Hendrix singers, its insouciant hippies and mixed race couples, and he decides, at last, “to join them.” Having regarded the beach scene with the bemused detachment of an anthropologist or a monk, he takes his place among the milling crowd on their “untold paths of moving and being / where sand and salt water meet / in their own begetting.” At the edge of land and sea, among palm trees that “invoke a tiki bar’s plastic foliage” and “a cold land’s dream of pleasure,” Smith tries to position his poem apart from mass-market artifice and the quick-lived solace of bourgeois hedonism.
Ultimately, it is the tension between the reticent observer and the willing participant that animates Smith’s collection. Often, the poems themselves appear to bridge the difference, if after the fact: to script the speaker into connection with memory, geography, politics, and the passing flavor of other lives. If Smith has adopted the perspective of a “tourist” on Venice Beach and elsewhere, he has nonetheless written a book that might allow us to get more thoughtfully, more productively lost. Indeed, the queries that conclude Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel” are the axes in Smith’s strongest poems in which the factual novelty of the observed scene is measured against the enriching fictions of the imagination. Bishop’s well-known poem concludes: “Continent, city, country, society: / the choice is never wide and never free. / And here, or there…No. Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?” In Smith’s collection, the narrator appears to be a transient resident of a garret in Ottawa; a visitor in post-colonial London; the eulogist of an Illinois tornado; and a would-be Marxist in Buenos Aires, among other locales. Yet travel and its exotic vistas do not wholly satisfy. Thus the narrator of “Travelogue” grimly advises his addressee: “Save your airfare / and give it to a good cause, / or throw it down a well. / Find a softer destination.” As in Bishop’s paraphrase of Pascal in “Questions of Travel,” Smith suggests that his questions—about loneliness, the vicissitudes of grief, and the artist’s relation to the commerce of human relations—are much the same, regardless of setting. His “home” is the gestalt that generates his restless doubt.
Some of Smith...