How do we face a world where our experiences and their impacts do not hold the necessary weight? Having read the poetry of Barton Smock for a few years now, this is a question I find myself repeating each time I return to his works. My own poetry has been shaped by experience and the shapes that response takes, so when I discovered Barton’s work, I was (selfishly) most interested in discovering someone speaking in the same language. Barton is a poet who self-publishes several collections a year. The subject matter seems to press itself into the fabric of daily life in the same way as time itself- creating a space that keeps moving away against our will. I understand this, and appreciate the dedication it takes to keep up the momentum that allows for such expulsion of energy through language. Seeking a way out of the mind to scatter toward the sky like so many murmurations of starlings.
Shakespeare can be blamed for the presence of starlings in the United States. An unqualified statement that can nevertheless drum up a great deal of subsequent speculation. But, when I think about the idea of creativity, consequence, and the reach of human thought, I think there’s something magnificent in the idea that a small statement can lead to another world of unsubstantiated idea. Maybe that statement seems foolish in light of the recent U.S. election and the apparent role of speculative news in the outcome, but as with all things, I think there are always at least two possible outcomes. As such, we have to accept the good with the bad and move forward against, or in tandem with, the consequences of history and try our best to bring something brighter to the fore. I think Barton Smock’s work is an attempt at this kind of reparation. I say this, also, without qualification beyond observation, but each volume of his poetry seems a reaching toward some greater future where understanding finally takes grip of the land.I was reading recently that perhaps
infant*cinema, Smock’s signature economy of language is showcased to the effect of creating an environment where the dream mind dominates and the reader must orientate herself to a world without absolute realities. Like the ability of Shakespeare’s work to reach across centuries and change local ecosystems, Smock’s work, in this collection, offers a world of malleability where circumstance itself alters the viability of reality while also stamping itself on the future. The future is the consequence of the past, the poems seem to say, but not only, and in recognition and acceptance, it appears possible to forge through the darkness of negative circumstance to land somewhere more solid.In his first volume of poetry published by Dink Press entitled
The book is trim, and filled with short, mostly paragraphed, often untitled poems which offer a sense of reading a collection of aphorisms or journal entries. There’s something deeply personal, but also distant about this that allows the reader to enter the action while remaining aloof. In the third poem of the collection, there comes a request that “god save the translucent.” In many ways, the supplication of this line sums up Smock’s poetry for me: the mythic conversation between humanity and the other; the lowercase god and the marginalized man locked in a constant refrain. At bottom, I would say that there’s a sense of seeking justice and reconciliation for Man as an entity, while also recognizing the sanctity of the specific.
Following this line of appeal, there is the stark sentence: “the abused are never more alone than when their abusers get help.” And, in this sentence, I am struck by the all-encompassing nature of the struggle, as a species, to both come to terms with what we are presented with, while also not losing sight of the importance of our own humanity. The marginalized remain marginalized and perhaps become further alienated in the struggle toward growth and survival, but that is not all. From the search for reconciliation, or the introduction of a new element, the story grows, perhaps more difficult, but there is flux, and in flux, there is possibility. Whether that possibility leads to redemption seems to be a question for the individual, and perhaps even a challenge as evidenced in other poems.
While much of the book comes back to the macro, the archetypal brother, mother, father, son, and so on, these characters and themes encourage the careful reader to read with both an inward and outward gaze. There is a plea at the heart of everything. A plea, again, for recognition of the particular and how it relates to the universal. The poem that begins: “I am on vacation and this dead body is kind of amazing,” offers the aforementioned distance coupled with the modern ironic tone of the social media socialite. There’s the temptation, at times, to read the ambiguous tone as social commentary, but the poems always manage to bring things back around to the rending reality of the human condition. The realization that distraction is only a temporary condition which will be alleviated like all things are with time.
The juxtaposition presented in the poem and others between elements like the light ‘kind of amazing’ and the weighty ‘dead body’ can make it difficult to navigate the world of infant*cinema. This difficulty is apt considering the emotional landscape of the poetry itself. The poem goes further to say, “brother, god is only the end of the dream. I dream the / ocean is a doll that comes to my knees. suicide has a room all to itself. can / narrate what I’m saying,” and the reader is drawn deeper into the world of opposing forces. Whether it is man against god or god as nature against all of time, we are never sure, but the need to find a ground to stand on that will support the questioning and need for accountability reverberates through every line.
Like Smock’s other collections, I believe infant*cinema is best read as an entire collection rather than as a book that is flipped through for a one or two poem fix. The power of the collection is most fully realized in its totality as each poem builds on the ideas of those that came before it. There is a context that brings the work together into something meaningful that may not be fully realized in parts. I would recommend the time spent.