Bruce Smith

Dear Lucinda Williams and Dear Jules
January 24, 2024 Smith Bruce

Labor Day, 2022


A power in proximity to terror, the lower middle-class sublime of a car’s back seat,
soothed and afflicted, tranced and troubled, and carried over the public works,
the window is the understory’s televised enchantment, storm, a monster, a leap
into the abyss, a tornado from the gulf rips up Lake Charles and Opelousas.
Some problems are capital, some problems temperamental, some problems
you and him, woe and me, some problems corporeal, archival.  Some small pleasures
in getting by, getting loose through the strum and crosspick, the guitar a lever
to the other world, a gamut, a pry bar into something sticky.  I listened.
You told me to read Bukowski, which I didn’t, couldn’t, and listen to Odetta
and Lou Reed which I did.  Told me to get a haircut, pet a pig.  I listened to
“Changed the Locks”: …changed the name of this town/so you won’t follow me down.
Love to be lost, changed, known, unknown like that.  Love to be sought
like that.  I would like the Southern Gothic to be less southern-lost-cause-fatalistic-
romantic-violent, and more gothic – terror-pleasure-mystery-reckoning, the dark
power of the soul in small betwanged spaces.  Like you do.  I don’t hate it,
I don’t hate it, until I do when they boo Michelle Obama at NASCAR.  Teach me
the route from liquid blue Louisiana to somewhere Mississippi – a brush arbor
or a blind pig, teach me the slow ride without bias.  In gentle, belligerent Tuscaloosa
I was basted and cooked, long and slow.  Jesus and wisteria and 1950 crushed me.
The train in the night.  I did not know the vernacular.  I was berated in kind ways.
I read in self-translation Frank Stanford’s blue yodel and his lullaby with rattlesnakes
and the tongues of preachers you come from.  Preachers are dirtless poets
with a Sunday audience and faith, and poets are feckless preachers who have crucified
themselves to stop the superflux.  The poets bring themselves to the mountain
to be martyred or wish, in their indulgent Reconstructed dreams, they would be martyred
while they make their oohs and ahhs, their amen chorus, their elaborate feels.
They share demons and white light.  Your father wrote when poetry
was de rigueur drinking, flowers of evil and funereal man thoughts.  The poet’s daughter
drinks a sugary cocktail part engine oil part lower order of angels, in ascending order:
mosquito, domino, rock band, seraphim, cherubim, Dixie Electric,
Beauregard Electric, roadies, chubby babies, tour managers, sound
engineers.  What did I forget?  Angels of Brown V.?  Angels of Vexation?
Angels of Win, Win, Win, Win, Win.  Angel of Mother Silence.  You study the body
by vibrations like a dolphin.  You busk your way out of it.  You bring yourself
to the mountain to be martyred.  You learn your father’s alphabet of catfish, scapula,
shadow.  Imagine the imagining and the escape from the imagining into song?  It’s formal.
It’s criminal.  My kid is one, too, poet daughter with a range of her own.
She went into medicine where they have a cure for this.  Did your father listen
when you sang in your room?  Did you want your “piracy” like my kid said?
Was the guitar a weapon or a potion?  Here’s my song for you:



Who’s speaking though you right now? Are you an I or a thou?
Are you Howlin’ Wolf, a fever, or a Sister?
Are you the electric wires or the transistor?



Who are you being today? The labor or the holiday?
The shadow, the spillway, the screen door?
The mood swing, the mother, the what for?



I told you beware, beware, his flashing eyes, his floating hair.
I was warning you of somebody
of melody and mood swings and the ecstasy



Everything blurs when held too near. Release me to the atmosphere
of Baton Rouge, Thibodaux, and Sulphur
be a voice in my inner ear



I told you beware, beware, his flashing eyes, his floating hair
You thought I was catastrophizin’
You thought I was magnolia-fyin’



Who are you being right now? And what and where and when and how?
Are you Flannery O’Connor or Loretta Lynn
Which Williams are you? Which spirit, which skin?


Are you the American Angel or the demon?





Kentucky was brood X, cicadas feeding, breeding, their insides vibrating
with our insides during the small crime of a long drive.  I got shook by books
on tape, the story of Tupac’s shooting – bullets and targets and diss lyrics
in the birthing room of a car propelled by the planet’s demise.  Songs
made men pull guns and guns made men sing.  One track is ecstatic
cake walk, one track felony, and one-track goddish retribution.  That’s how
you make a long story short.  Kentucky was the song of 1994, the seventeen
year cycle of male singing, sap sucking, fucking, and dying in the death metal.
Kentucky was the blood-brain barrier to our crisis the cicadas found
the music for.  Our crisis scored by Tupac Shakur.  Kentucky was stank eye
after stank eye.  What did they see that was us?  Kentucky was a woods bath
and Jesus.  Then Ohio – a deep state destroyed by glaciers.  Ohio was good river
gone bad.  Ohio was golf course, feed lot, patriot.  Ohio was a hungry ghost.
Who went to Ohio and Ohio was gone?  Who went to Ohio in a swarm of bees?
How’s it been in Ohio, Babe, sang King Princess, with wet lips.   Ohio in the bardo.
Ohio was a summons and secret name said and the nation now visible, vulnerable.
Is it too late to hear the drummin’, four dead in O-hio?  Music against obeying in advance.
Music against the horizontal.  Music me out of here.  Through the small speakers
I shall be released like a pigeon into the hell realm.  The arc of a life in a windrow.
Ohio seeded after the Great Awakenings and harvested by liberal artists, proud boys.
The males flex the muscles of their middles and sing of love and violence.


Bruce Smith was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the author of six books of poems: The Common Wages; Silver and Information (National Poetry Series, selected by Hayden Carruth); Mercy Seat; The Other Lover (University of Chicago), which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; Songs for Two Voices (Chicago, 2005); and most recently, Devotions, a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and winner of the William Carlos Williams Prize. He teaches at Syracuse University.