Rick Smith, Whispering in a Mad Dog’s Ear

Rick Smith, Whispering in a Mad Dog’s Ear, (Lummox Press, 2014), 101pp, £9.14, ISBN 9781929878505

Reviewed by Kyle Cooper [Originally published in LP5, December 2014]

Rick Smith’s poetry treads a dusty path along different borders – borders between spaces, between moments, and between these things and what lies outside them. While other places are within the scope of this poetics – Denmark, Paris, Belgium; even Venus, Mars and Jupiter are all glimpsed – the feeling of space is evocatively American to me.

The highways of Bucks County encountered in ‘a rendering’ and the “toll booths, gas stations, warehouses, forsaken stretches of Tattoo Highway” move to the cold, forbidding edges of ‘Hyannis, 1982’ and the hemmed-in waters seen in ‘Notes from Echo Park’. The lonely sense of these places is captured in ‘hills’, an early, haiku-like poem, which stretches out like “musk oxen / in my red sleep”. There’s a sense of great emptiness, scattered with vast, thrumming blips of action, hubs of population, and inhabited by wanderers who move between them, who are explored with an empathetic and imaginative eye. Smith’s perception covers jazz musicians, heroin addicts, gunmen’s targets, adulterous couples and suicides. These drifters are the poets of Smith’s collection, who indifferently state:

We study freight schedules,
bus routes,
blue highways,
mountain trails,
we know
how to get out of town.

An awful lot of these spaces revolve around water. Lakes are gazed upon, rivers are rafted, and the sea churns characteristically. Water is explicitly tied to borders in a handful of early poems; ‘Sailcloth’, ‘Landing’, ‘Rowing to a Place’ examine the passing of time and crossing oceans. New lands are discovered, new borders are traversed. The meniscus of water becomes a useful metaphor in exploring moments of time, illustrated in ‘photos of the lake’, in which “an even fit of open water” is expertly captured in a photograph, even as a skimming stone changes its shape. A millennium-long second occupies the time between a fatal raft crash and the arrival of a rescue helicopter in ‘Rafting on the Kern River’ – moments are vitally important, and Smith is determined to place his characters within them.

Smith’s borderlands stretch beyond space; a linearity works its geometric way into the time span of these poems. The thrumming blips of action become charged moments, rather than buzzing cities.  ‘Renting Storage Space’ draws these conceptions of space and time together, zooming in on a less-than-totally-legal businessman in a storage building in some empty outskirts. The narrator plans escapes to specific places – Wind Point, Lake Michigan – from this anonymous location. Mirroring this, he notes the specificity of his point in time: “Tonight planets line up / in the western sky….”

These planets will not
line up like this again
until 2040 and yet
we lay low, rent storage space,
sign false documents,
cover tracks,
look over our shoulder

(‘Renting Storage Space’)

These moments share the same idiosyncratic loneliness as Smith’s space. The godforsaken hours of early mornings are a favourite of his, explored in the wandering ‘Letter from Metro’, ‘men afraid of only one thing’ and the chilling ‘trembling with my angel’. Smith describes these moments best when he describes the emotional energy in them. ‘Rage’ is a strong poem, ending with a particularly icy, furious image of “the smooth cold rock / of the heart”.  I’m a fan of ‘Dropping the Wild Horse’, which follows a tragic, crazed arc of the dying horse as it hits the ground. These moments are strung together, held together in a tight web. Smith anticipates the vastness of the space his tiny moments inhabit, just as his solitary characters are travelling points on the surface of the world. It is the poet’s job to chart the maps of these areas, to recognise “all the lines….holding it together. / The impression / better than memory”.

Smith’s poetry looks into different situations and characters with an outsiders’ gaze – even when the poet takes up a first-person narration, there is a feeling of distance. Things are observed rather than explained. Permanent objects inhabit spaces with a definite real-ness, particularly a “yellow table” which crops up enough times in the collection to suggest a certain symbolism. Metaphor, while certainly present, has to be sought out with a fervour which makes the reader doubt whether it is there at all – the epigraphic ‘Words out of a machine’ sets the idea of metaphor turning, describing the writing of a poem as a mechanical action culminating as “words stagger / out. Old women from burning buildings”. Yet the yellow table coyly remains a yellow table. Perhaps in this there is an echo of William Carlos Williams’ notorious wheelbarrow, or Wallace Stevens’ beautiful Sunday oranges; objects presented as objects themselves. Certainly, Smith seems aware of himself as part of a wide tradition of American poetry, opening his collection with a piece dedicated to Allan Ginsberg.

These wide and unmanageable themes are well-connected and shaped by this collection. Despite their ragged appearance, Smith’s characters are desperate to communicate: “This is real. / I need to talk to you”. Smith is empathetic and sympathetic, connecting solitary characters within the system of his poetry. ‘Snow on Different Statues’ is particularly good at this, seeing the poet break the boundaries imposed by water, space and time to connect with the sculptee.

These poems are moody, noir-ish and gritty. Smith’s style is rich, but bleak, and is maybe best enjoyed in smaller doses – that being said, this is a fine collection, with much of merit in it. Smith’s empathy and understanding are not allowed to disappear, and the poems do not fall into woeful, self-indulged mourning. Instead, there is a real attempt at working things out beneath what appears to be Smith’s cold gaze.


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