One/Then one/Then two

 A Review of Camille Dungy’s Smith Blue

Smith Blue
By Camille Dungy
Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Southern Illinois Press 2011, 88 pages
Reviewed by Molly Spencer

Camille T. Dungy is a poet and editor known for her attention to nature, history (both the personal and the political), and the intersection of the two. She is the author of Suck on the Marrow (2010) and a collection of sonnets, What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006), which was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Library of Virginia Literary Award. Dungy, in order to address “the paucity of African American poets in anthologies of nature poetry,”  edited the anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009). She has won fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Antiquarian Society, and Cave Canem, among others.

In her third poetry collection, Smith Blue, she uses her range of poetic skills and interests to create a catalogue of love and loss, of beauty and degradation, of the questions--large and small--of modern life and landscape. It’s also a survival guide for those of us who wish to navigate these contradictions deeply and well. Just a glance at the table of contents tells us we are in rich and fraught territory: bombs and emergency plans, lovers and grandfathers, illness, ease, and truth. The collection’s prologue poem, “After Opening The New York Times I Wonder How to Write a Poem about Love,” invites us to “turn the page” into our complex world; into the strange commingling of plenty and want, peace and war, connectedness and isolation; into a dogged persistence amidst the myriad contradictions of modern life.

Next, we pause at the juxtaposition of beauty and war in “Daisy Cutter.” Dungy trains our eyes on the strange abundance of a flower stand in the city, while elsewhere in the world “children… wake to bouquets of fire // that will take their breath away.” In this poem we also experience the complications of love, its sometimes threatening intimacy: “The way you hold me, // sometimes, you could choke me. / There is no way to protect myself,… .” And yet, amidst these contradictions, Dungy reveals one of her themes in the collection: persistence and “the way we carry on.” This persistence, this carrying on, can work for good and for ill in this collection--just as it does in our lives: It is sometimes a brave stepping out into a flawed but beautiful world, and other times an addition to the many troubles of our world wrought by human hands: war, environmental degradation, and being too busy to pay attention to the fragile beauty that surrounds us.

The title of the collection comes from the poem “The Blue” about an endangered butterfly whose natural habitat on the Big Sur coast has been degraded by development since its discovery in 1948 by two UC-Berkeley undergrads, Rudi Mattoni and Claude Smith. Before the pair could officially document and present their discovery to the science world, Smith was swept away by a rogue wave while fishing on the Pacific shoreline at Half Moon Bay. Mattoni named the butterfly Smith’s Blue in honor of his deceased friend. The poem begins with witness and destruction: “One will live to see the Caterpillar rut everything / they walk on — seacliff buckwheat cleared, relentless / ice plant to replace it, the wild fields bisected… .” Dungy exposes the paradox that, even as we destroy the habitat of other creatures, our habitat exists amidst its own destruction, whether human-made or wrought by nature: “this coastal stretch endangered, everything, / everyone, everywhere in it in danger as well.” The fragility of a butterfly, the power of one sneaker wave, the tribute to friendship cut short--each combines with the rest of the poems in this volume to underscore the contradictions of this beautiful, terrible, dangerous and endangered, intimately known, but incomprehensible world.

Throughout the collection, Dungy uses line breaks, white space, and circular language to keep the reader on the edge of life’s contradictions. Her skills are particularly deft in the long poem toward the center of the collection, “Prayer for P—.” The poem begins circularly, almost bewildered as, the poet infers, we have no choice but to be in this world: “The door even, / her apartment door, / even her door // suffered cruelly.” As the poem unfolds we learn that there has been a death; that the death was a poet’s; that even amidst abundant praise for this poet’s work, and genuine love and affection (“remember, she was my friend. don’t let’s forget, our friend.”), the grief of P—‘s life left her “vexed and alone,” and, ultimately, dead. “Prayer for P--” unfolds in a duet of voices: the controlled voice of the first section alternates, later in the poem, with a voice that shames and lectures:

        another thing you’ve got to remember
        not to forget to remember who to thank —
        don’t forget to remember, I should remind you,

        let me remind you, everything you want to call your own,
        it’s not your own;

This voice wants to overpower and oppress even as the speaker navigates isolation and grief. It’s the parent voice in all of us that says we should’ve known better, should’ve done better, and is rendered all the more scathing by the fact that, in this poem, it’s too late. In a later section of the poem, Dungy reminds us that “there is always more about losing / to learn” as the poem’s speaker catalogues her own losses, as well as the losses of P--, who “abandoned / everything: her knives and her dishes, plants, poems, pictures, telephone, / records, everything, everyone, linens, lovers even, her pen, her books, her name.” In the poem’s last line, we find no redemption, no bright light leading us on except in the form of a glaring truth: “not knowing, this was one awful thing. knowing, another.”

And yet, the collection doesn’t leave us entirely without hope. In the final poem, “Maybe Tuesday Will Be My Good News Day,” we find ourselves amidst music-making where the speaker of the poem is “one moment an empty bell, / one moment a rubber mute.” The concept of practice circles and repeats through the poem: “I’ve practiced / so I know what comes next.” By the end, with alley cats skirting the edges of the scene, and even with fires flaring, we believe that with enough practice we’ll end in a togetherness: “One/Then one/Then two.” How to carry on then, Dungy seems to say, is to persist, to pay attention to the paradoxes of our lives, and, in the end, to stay together: one, then one, then two.

Molly Spencer's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in CALYX, Cave Wall, Linebreak, The Massachusetts Review, and other journals. She writes about poetry, the writing life, and parenthood at A native Michigander and erstwhile Minnesotan, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their three children.

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