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Winter 2017 — Book Review by Charles Rammelkamp

by Aaron Smith
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016
$ 15.95, 104 pages
ISBN: 978-0822964346

Why Primer? It's either the book a child learns to read from or an underlying coat of paint; in either case, something fundamental, foundational. True, toward the end of this collection there's a poem called "Primer for Men" that reads as a sort of sad parody of those Good Housekeeping articles on "Ten Ways to Satisfy Your Date" and "Eight Steps to a Fulfilling Love Life," etc. But as Mark Doty writes in his back-cover blurb, shame is "the crux in Smith's austere poems." Guilt. Depression. Loneliness. The primary colors of existence.

The first poem, indeed, is entitled "Ruined." It's full of violence, from playground fistfights to gay-bashing, friends, lovers, family.

     My father wants to take me outside
     and beat me for my smart–ass mouth.

     He says: You're just like my father
     I say: I'd kill myself to get away from you, too.

We learn later, in "When You Told Me Your Father Was Dying," Smith's grandfather committed suicide. How cruel these words are, and no less to Smith for uttering them (at least in the poem); you can hear the shame that sears him.

The poem "Like Him," also about his father, concludes, "I learned to fight like his father, like him; / the meanest guy wins, don't ever apologize." Words that could have been spoken by Donald Trump.

A lengthy, multi–part poem entitled "Blue Exits" is all about suicide — a theme that runs throughout the collection: how to do it, why to do it, why not to do it, how to prevent it.

     Aaron Smith killed himself
     because he worried about parking.
     I wish that was as funny as it sounds.

Suicide lurks as an ever–present option throughout the collection. Another lengthy, multi–part poem "The Unknown Buried in the Known," takes the agonizing death of Smith's friend and mentor, Irene McKinney, former Poet Laureate of West Virginia, as the subject of its meditation on death, pain, the futility of existence. It ends with these lines about the family dog:

     She's stopped eating, sick

     for months. It's just a matter of days,
     dad says, we tried to give her a decent life.

Pretty bleak, eh? Yet the poems are unflinching, without self–pity, simply describing a condition, leading us to the understanding that this is, to use a dictionary definition of primer, "a small introductory book on a subject." The subject? His (our) "stupid, tiny life" that nevertheless we don't want to end ("This Exact Sky").

"Primer" in its sense of paint foundation echoes as well in the titles of a number of poems: "Still Life with Gun," "Still Life with Train," "Still Life with Antidepressants," "Still Life with a Hundred Crucifixions," all of them painting a basic paradigm ("I don't know how to live my life, / but at least today I want to.").

"A Letter Regarding Your Recent Artwork," a parody of a rejection letter, concludes:

     Dear Artist, this isn't about your race or sex or orientation.
     This is about us, our community,
     which is your community.

     Dear Artist, we have painted over your art.
     We wanted to include everyone.

This echoes the cover art, a portrait of a man whose face is blotted out with a splotch of red paint, a painting (Untitled — Mike) by the Canadian artist, Elly Smallwood.

The poems about sex seem especially sad and saturated with shame and loneliness ("I never talked to men / after sex, just got dressed // and left..." — from "Still Life with a Hundred Crucifixions"), and this seems somehow tied up with the feeling of inadequacy regarding his father — for whom Aaron is not the manly son he'd wanted — and his mother, a fundamentalist Christian. Here's his father:


     Dad said someone shot
     the albino deer with

     a gun, out of season. Eyes
     pink, white fur, a reverse

     shadow in dusk against
     the hillside. Not in all

     the years I've hunted
     have I seen an animal

     like that. It's cruel, he says,
     for nature to make

     such a thing, unable
     to hide when hiding

     is how it survives. He looks
     through my eyes, then

     away, he wants us to stay
     ordinary men.

And his mother:

     Born Again

     Just think, mom says,
     if Emily Dickinson was saved,

     one day you'll see her
     in heaven.

These feelings of inadequacy also get mixed up with his feelings about his looks (a buff guy from his author's photos). "I'm bald and hungry with a pillow— / y chest, my skin fits looser every day," he writes in "David Beckham Is People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive," an otherwise humorous poem that ends, "At least I'm not losing my aim." "Takeout" is similarly a poem about eating junk food and includes the repeated line, "Avoid the room with the mirror." There's so much self–contempt lurking in these verses.

Ambivalence, then, is finally at the root of these poetic expressions, the foundational primer of Aaron Smith's verse and existence. The final poem in the collection, "Driving North on Interstate 99 the Poet Considers His Life at Forty," ends with the lines:

     I can't stand to drive in silence.
     I can't stand to drive with the radio on.


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