- Its Ghostly Workshop by Ron Smith
Because it is not a splashy book, Ron Smith's collection Its Ghostly Workshop appears to have gone the way of many contemporary poetry collections, garnering what we would assume to be a modest if dedicated readership and generating several insightful reviews in publications other than this one. But as with many of these other collections, Workshop warrants closer attention for a number of reasons, not least of which is the poet's interest in Edgar Allan Poe, whom he invokes in a brief sequence of poems in the book's second section. Those poems, which are the impetus for this review, set in motion a compelling meditation on the American poetic tradition, telescoped through the life and work of two of the exemplars of high modernism, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. For anyone familiar with the ambivalence toward Poe's poetry among the modernists, Smith's is an intriguing genealogy, and it works surprisingly well because the poet dares to have his speakers engage the intersections between these writers' lives and their work, the mythos surrounding them as well as the mythos they themselves encourage in and through their poems and their cultural criticism. Whereas this move has proven disastrous to certain scholarship, in a poetic context—and in Smith's capable hands—it creates the opportunity for the reader not only to examine but to experience, viscerally as well as intellectually, the very types of conflation that continue to shape our understanding of how, even why, literature is made.
Before we turn our attention to the poems about Poe, I think it important to examine Smith's poetics, as well as to give a brief account of the book's architecture. Smith is of that rare breed, an unapologetic twenty-first-century American Romantic. Some critics may fault him for this, for halting the arc of his poetry prior to the arrival of postmodernism. There are indeed merits to such criticism, and I would concede that Smith's book suffers at times from its commitment to Romanticism and to the Confessionalism that followed. There are poems throughout the collection, "Come On In, Come On Along" and "A Different World," for instance—both in the books' sixth section, perhaps its most ambitious and equally its most uneven—in which a pernicious masculinity might turn away readers expecting, even taking for granted, the fact that so much contemporary poetry tends to offer a broader range of inclusivity than what appears to be on offer here. [End Page 309]
The fact is that there are a great many men in this collection, some, including a number of Smith's more prominent speakers, contending with the long shadows cast by other men—from literary figures such as Pound, who comes in for quite a beating in the poems that focus on him, to football and baseball coaches from a mid-twentieth century that, especially in these speakers' eyes, takes on the sentimentalized patina of a bygone era. This lack of balance—in terms not only of sex but also of gender and of sexual identity—may for some readers eclipse the other pleasures and accomplishments the book achieves. Were this to be the case, I suspect that many of the poems might read as dated in ways that belie their complicated and artful explorations of remembrance and memorialization. Take, for example, these lines from the poem "The Day Jerry Suna Came to Baseball Practice Drunk," which demonstrate both the regularized masculinity I have described and the ways in which Smith leverages reminiscence to challenge and to enlarge that same masculinity:
I found myself filling out, alonein a magic circle, whirling my worldall afternoon. From where I stoodbaseball was a bunch of squawkingand little puffs of pink dust, cracks,thunks, occasional jackal laughter.I made that black bloodblister peel and hardenTo a callous on my right pointer finger,got down that dizzy technique, working a notchin my own flying saucer, warm breezeon my skin, walking outbetween...