I think Anne Sexton and Frank O’Hara had a child and his name is Aaron Smith, and his Blue on Blue Ground is perhaps the bravest collection of poems...more I think Anne Sexton and Frank O’Hara had a child and his name is Aaron Smith, and his Blue on Blue Ground is perhaps the bravest collection of poems since Sharon Olds gave us sacraments such as Satan Says and The Gold Cell. Aaron Smith’s courage is on par with that of revolutionary writers like Sexton, O’Hara, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks. His first full-length collection is unapologetically confessional, and both defiantly confrontational and defiantly vulnerable. His emotional honesty and authenticity are disarming and refreshing, especially in today’s poetic culture of guarded wit, artful dodging, and pretense, where emotional searching and self reference are often deemed pathetic and passe. He reminds us of some of the highest callings of poetry, and of the power of art to do what no other noble pursuit can do nearly as well. This book succeeds in the highest aims of art: like science that adheres to its principles, it seeks the truth, without regard to what one might like the truth to be; like the best of law and politics it compels us toward the “better angels of our nature;” like uncorrupted journalism it tells what isn’t being told, despite efforts of powers-that-be to keep it hidden, despite our own wishes to look away; like responsible education it challenges us to question, reconsider, and grow; like medicine not adulterated by motives of profit, its purpose is healing, even if that means doing some painful vivisection first.
Chosen by Denise Duhamel for the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, this book contains gems such as “The Signs of Choking” (to be a bruise spit out/ from the mouth of last night’s/ undressed stranger), “Story” (How quickly I am made strange), the “Dr. Engels” poems (swollen and exaggerated/ like the heads of the baby mice/ squashed in the garage), and “Then,” from which the following is an excerpt:
“Of course, there was a tragedy, the way the beautiful are given back to the stories that made them, quick
and perfect like a flash of his hair in the wind. And it’s stupid, predictable - the car, the drunk star athlete dead, leaving
his exhausted mother to wander the house at night calling his name”
Far greater than the sum of its considerably impressive parts, however, is its power as a collection. It is not only startlingly honest, it also reminds us of two buried anthropological artifacts: that meaningful honesty is not a rigid and easily drawn code concerned with the arrangement of clean facts, and that the liberations such honesty brings, although ultimately dazzling and wonderful, are sometimes as heavy as its burdens.
The first two poems of Smith’s I ever read, long before I read his book, left me thinking I would not like his work much. I’m usually drawn to more lyric intensity: a lot of simile, lines dense with bold and inventive imagery, where associations are drawn between the concrete that would otherwise seem unimaginable. Larissa Szporluk’s work comes to mind. That’s not to say my tastes don’t range far from that example, but for reasons that also include factors I haven’t yet identified, I just wasn’t enthusiastic about my first sampling of Smith’s work. The moral of this story is never rule out a poet after one reading, especially when that reading includes only a few poems. I’m more excited about this collection than I have been about anything I’ve read in maybe as long as two or three years, and I’m someone who is thrilled almost daily by something I read.
Blue on Blue Ground makes me want to buy Aaron Smith dinner and spend all night talking with him; it makes me want to be “made strange” to myself; it makes me want to find the bullies of his schooldays and give them bloody noses; it makes me want to get my “hairbrush microphone” and dance around and sing to Blondie and The Bangles; it makes me want to trade my frequent acts of cowardice for treks into my personal wildernesses. This book makes me want to be a better writer. This book, and I say this without the embarrassment it challenges us to defy, makes me want to be a better person. Fulfilling one of art’s most important functions, this book makes me want. (less)
Read in 1994, and was planning on reading it again, but inspired by the film "Little Children," which I just saw for the second and third times recent...moreRead in 1994, and was planning on reading it again, but inspired by the film "Little Children," which I just saw for the second and third times recently, to re-read it now. I can't think of another film, btw, that includes such a good discussion of a book and attitudes surrounding a book, as this film does, nor a film character for whom discussed literature resonates so thoroughly as Sarah, the film's protagonist, who sees herself in the book's protagonist. I just re-read Anne Sexton's "Love Poems," too, for the gazillionth time, and interested to read "Bovary" in the context of the film and poetry.
Update/Review: 'Wrote the above in July-ish '09; read the book shortly thereafter. 'Appreciated it more now than the first time I read it in or around '94. It was also interesting to read it with the thoughts of Kate Winslet's character (Sarah) in mind, although I would love to know if I would have had a similar reading as Sarah's, had I not seen the film "Little Children," first. It's impossible to know, but I am fairly convinced I would have, especially given some events in my life at the time. I'm guessing the same circumstances that contributed to my strong sense of empathy for Sarah would undoubtedly have rowed me toward a similar view of Emma Bovary: However flawed she is, and however tragically flawed her attempts to escape the mundane emotional landscape of her life, which she spends in the 19th century French cultural equivalent of suburbia, Emma is heroic, if in no other way, in her refusal to pleasantly accept the restrictions placed on women in her society. Like Sarah in "Little Children" and the Anne Sexton in her "Love Poems," the itinerary Emma Bovary follows as her way out out is painfully misdirected, not at all liberating, and ultimately fruitless, but her heroism lies in the struggle itself. The ability to see her as heroic lies in the reader's ability and willingness to see the bravery inherent in the struggle, however dishonorable or illusory its manifestations. (less)
There are a few exceptions, but in general I'm not a big fan of biographies, so the fact that I liked this bio is, I think, testament to the fine writ...moreThere are a few exceptions, but in general I'm not a big fan of biographies, so the fact that I liked this bio is, I think, testament to the fine writing and apparently extensive research of the author, and the compelling story of this poet. Most importantly, the biographer seems to possess a real understanding of and fascination with her subject. (less)
I read this when I was about seventeen, had just gotten back from the Soviet Union, and threw myself into a Russian literature frenzy. I remember that...moreI read this when I was about seventeen, had just gotten back from the Soviet Union, and threw myself into a Russian literature frenzy. I remember that I loved it and at least thought I understood why it's a classic, but I can't remember anything about the actual story, so I can't wait to read it again -- I adore Fyodore and his "Brothers...," "Idiot," etc. (less)
I got this as a gift right when it came out in late 2005 and of course still have so much to read -- and re-read. Wow, wow, wow, could you possibly ge...moreI got this as a gift right when it came out in late 2005 and of course still have so much to read -- and re-read. Wow, wow, wow, could you possibly get more talent and virtuosity in one collection? Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, Mailer, Updike, Anne Sexton, James Baldwin, Woody Allen, Hendrick Hertzberg, Junot Diaz, and on and on and on...(less)