Flyover Country, Austin Smith, Princeton University Press, 2018
I have spent some time thinking about which facet of the opening poem of Austin Smith’s Flyover Country is the one which kept me enthralled. But as I type I realize it is the combination, Smith’s skill as a writer: the narrative, with its hint of mystery and, like all narratives, the fuel for your desire to find out how it ends; the concrete nouns which pin you down like the red spots on the wings of the blackbirds mentioned; the imperative voice, which never allows for the idea that you might not want to listen and which makes urgent even the empty rocking chairs and whose certainty comes across like that of a close friend.
Flyover Country is divided into three sections, with poems about the rural interior of the U.S. bookending those taking place in Turin, Lourdes, or Anne Frank’s house. That does not mean the poems in the middle section exclude Smith’s home country; many are rooted there while simultaneously touching other times and places. In “Wounded Men Seldom Come Home to Die”, Smith writes
And this is why: when a wounded man comes home
To die he must come in through the summer kitchen
Clutching his wound like a bunch of kindling.
At the sight of him his mother faints. He catches her
Just in time and lays her down on the floor.
When his sister comes in from slopping hogs to find her
Brother at the table with his long legs kicked out
And their mother senseless on the linoleum, she sighs
But no matter where the poem takes place, or to whom, Smith’s voice sings. From the titular poem, “The lobes of the thunderhead / Flaring with lightning”. From “Country Things”: “while in a seam / Of gleaming honey in the oak that lighting / Cleaved the queen daintily eats her offspring”.
And his voice makes story. From “The Man Without Oxen”:
The harness you might have taken hold of
Last fall to still this shaking in your hands
Hangs on the barn wall, smelling faintly of lather.
Being a farmer, you know you didn’t sow them
Deep enough, and that it won’t be long now until
Winter rains bring their bones out of the hill.
In the end, I personally found Smith’s work to be so grounded in place and time that it felt universal. In “Some Haiku Found Scrawled in the Margins of the Old Farmer’s Almanac 1957”, he writes,
All the wicks
Curved the same way.