A review of Virginia poet Ron Smith’s latest collection The Humility of the Brutes.
by J. Rhett Forman
Vast spans of time and space converge in The Humility of the Brutes, Ron Smith’s latest collection of poems, some of which are dark, some nostalgic, some ghostly, and all poignant. This is Smith’s third book in Louisiana State University Press’s Southern Messenger Poets series, edited by Dave Smith. A former poet laureate of Virginia (2012-2014) well known for his sports poetry, Smith has earned such honors as Southern Poetry Review’s Guy Owen Award, Poetry Northwest’s Theodore Roethke Prize and the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize. A native of Savannah, Georgia, Smith has spent his career as a Virginia poet teaching at the University of Richmond and at St. Christopher’s School where he is writer-in-residence. The Humility of the Brutes stands as a remarkable achievement for this already proven and accomplished Southern poet.
Smith maintains his usual accessible style while his poems display the freedom earned by a veteran poet. They are required reading for anyone looking to understand how best to approach the often regretful figures and events of history and to anyone looking for the best that today’s American poetry has to offer. Like Smith’s previous two books, Moon Road and Its Ghostly Workshop, The Humility of the Brutes is really several books in one, part travel journal, part sports autobiography and part literary history. However, this latest collection has a structure all its own.
As its name suggests, Moon Road (LSU Press, 2007) guides the reader on an expansive journey, beginning in the South, winding its way through Rome and Greece (see Via Appia and “To Ithaca”), and finally reaching the promised land (see “Holy Land”). Its Ghostly Workshop (LSU Press, 2013) comes full circle, beginning with the South’s literary past (see “Edgar Poe Tries to Get His Act Together”), venturing once more to Italy and returning to the South and the poet’s life as a grandfather (see “Its Ghostly Workshop”). Unlike both Moon Road and Its Ghostly Workshop, however, The Humility of the Brutes is not so logically organized. Instead, Smith alternates back and forth between travel, autobiography and history. To characterize each collection, while the mode of Moon Road is rising (see Dante’s Divine Comedy) and the mode of Its Ghostly Workshop revolving (see Eliot’s Four Quartets), the mode of The Humility of the Brutes is rotating (see Pound’s Cantos). Taken together, then, these three books offer a harmonious universe of verse.
Smith’s title poems are always his most important, but with The Humility of the Brutes, we cannot ignore the image that accompanies the book’s title. As the epigram indicates, Smith borrows the phrase “the humility of the brutes” from Yeats, who describes artistic inspiration as fleeting and terrible, much like “lightning, in the humility of the brutes.” The cover photograph (taken by Smith) implicitly applies this sentiment to the ancient Greek bronze statue of the Boxer at Rest, housed in the Museo delle Terme in Rome. Smith’s ekphrastic poem “Bronze Boxer” then develops this theme. Previous poems such as “Napoleon’s Naked Sister” and “The Caravaggio Room” (from Its Ghostly Workshop) show how masterfully Smith employs ekphrasis, that is, poetry about other works of art, and “Bronze Boxer” is his finest example of this device. In this Shakespearean sonnet, Smith imagines that the victorious, “[w]rung out, bleeding, dignified” boxer is looking over his shoulder into the crowd as a fan praises him. Smith breathes life into the lifelike statue by getting inside the boxer’s head so we can read his colloquial, but apt thoughts: “Check the other guy. / I bet he’s still there, looking at the sky.” In many ways, who Smith is as a poet culminates in “Bronze Boxer,” a poem which marries a traditional form with an accessible, contemporary voice and which unites his interest in the classical Mediterranean world with his passion for sports.
The subject of sports becomes even more personal in “Apocalypse,” a poem that borrows its title from a famous Greek term and applies it to a moment in Smith’s Savannah childhood. The poem recounts the story of a high school football star whose injury to his buttock ends his chance of playing in college. Inventively, Smith begins the poem in the hospital room before shifting to the scene of the accident late in the poem. Even the boy’s father “frowned at his side, the one who’d turned / nineteen on Guadalcanal, the one who said / it was the worst wound he’d ever witnessed / on a living human.” The reader cringes as Smith describes “the gleaming / nerve kinked, / twisted.” In a flashback from the hospital to the moment of the injury, Smith recounts, “There was no pain and only a little blood / as he stood in the yard … ” As the boy stands in shock, “someone opened the car’s back door / and someone else whispered Can you take / one step? And, you know, he could.”
Regarding the title of “Apocalypse,” of course such a life-changing incident clearly qualifies as apocalyptic, but Smith suggests another way of interpreting the title. This other interpretation is found in the literal meaning of the word “apocalypse” as “uncovering.” Smith says that he “was the first athlete in Chatham County [his] senior year to sign a football contract” but was soon “in the accident dramatized in the poem,” an accident “caused by the fender ornament on a 1961 Chevy.” Although the poem claims that “it was gone, the trip north, the college degree,” Smith himself recovered and went on to play at the University of Richmond for four seasons, lettering as a sophomore. Smith himself, therefore, sees “Apocalypse” as “an alternate history,” an “uncovering” of what might have been.
Smith reimagines history again with “The Birth of Modern Poetry,” which recalls the struggles of the young modernist Ezra Pound and the misadventures that ultimately led to Pound’s success as a poet. Pound’s influence has always pervaded Smith’s work (Smith is an alumnus of the University of New Orleans’ Ezra Pound Center for Literature at Brunnenburg Castle, Italy, the home of Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz). In fact, Smith dedicates “The Birth of Modern Poetry” to Mary de Rachewiltz, “the daughter / [the young Pound] can’t yet imagine and certainly / does not want.” Smith first tells how Pound was “[c]hucked out of the Academy” before immersing us in Pound’s Venice where “[y]ou can spend an evening / in the mask shop / filling in / those empty eyes.” In such lines, Smith’s travel poetry and interest in literary history collide. Smith even transforms into his subject, adopting the voice of Pound in the same way he adopts the voice of the “Bronze Boxer,” finishing the poem on these resolute lines: “[H]e’ll get / to goddamn London and change the world. / Which way to change it? / How do you know? / You make it new, make it up as you go, / and you keep on moving.” As if “filling in / those empty eyes” of Pound’s mask, Smith brilliantly uses Pound as a persona in a poem that makes the past personal.
Smith then achieves the same effect in what is perhaps the eeriest and most obscure piece in the collection, “Oh, Duh! to the Confederate Dead,” a parody of Allen Tate’s “The Oath” and of Tate’s famous “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” Smith mocks Tate’s nostalgic, romantic view of the Confederacy and of the antebellum South, a view so often repeated in the tradition of Southern literature. In “Oh Duh!” Smith communes with the “unclean shadows / Of the immoderate past,” at once critiquing and implicating himself, as if to cleanse the South of the stain of its past. Similarly, in “Artificer” Smith mentions the statues of “the losers and traitors” that he and his grandson see while driving “back down [Richmond’s] Monument [Avenue] in the golden light.” Smith cannot help but comment upon the beauty of such a scene. The paradox that is the alluring but damnable history of slavery and racism finds its match in Smith’s equally paradoxical verse. In “Oh Duh! to the Confederate Dead,” “Artificer” and “John Smith in Virginia” Smith proves that an honest portrait of the flawed Southern past is more alluring than Tate’s romantic fiction.
If “Bronze Boxer” typifies Smith’s travel and ekphrastic poetry, and if “Apocalypse” typifies his autobiographical sports poetry, and if “The Birth of Modernism” typifies his literary history poetry, then “Oh Duh! to the Confederate Dead” combines his interest in literary history with his interest in the South. Taken together, then, these four poems encompass the rotating subjects of the entire book and thoroughly represent who Smith is as a poet. Other noteworthy pieces in the collection include “Forum Boarium,” the funny account of a tourist among ancient Roman ruins; “Cairbre the Beautiful,” a timely political (and love) poem; and Seven Years After the Fall, a group of seven travel poems about Russia. For its wit, personality and unique voice, The Humility of the Brutes is the best of Ron Smith and the pride of Southern verse.
J. Rhett Forman is an instructor of General Studies at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. He received his Ph.D. and M.A. in Literature from the University of Dallas and his B.A. from St. John’s College, Santa Fe. His work has been published by Make It New, Ramify, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Clemson University Press.