An Evening with Marc Smith
at Windows on the Cumberland
Reviewed by Stephen M. Jackson
(This review was first published in Letter eX back in October, 1991.)
I heard about him months before he arrived. I was sitting in a barber's chair in a salon in Nashville, Tennessee, waiting for the new and improved me to emerge from a $40 haircut, when my hairdresser, Pamela, our Beatlick lady of non-virginal grace, a very energetic woman, who believes that poetry is next to Godliness, paused with the blow drier in her hand and said, "Do you know, Marc Smith is coming to town?"
Well, no. I didn't. In fact, I didn't even know who the hell he was. But not wishing to appear culturally blind, I said, "Oh, really. That's great. Where's he performing?"
"At Windows on the Cumberland," she said. "You should definitely try and go, if you can. He's the one who started poetry slams in Chicago."
"Oh, that Marc Smith," I said, nodding my head in a pseudo-intellectual fashion. But I didn't have the slightest idea what she was talking about. I thought it must be some new version of slam dancing to rhymed couplets.
"Yeah," Pamela said, "he's responsible for new poetry revivals all over the country. And he's coming here in a few weeks to read some of his poems. You really have to go. I've got your number I'll call you later and remind you."
And sure enough, weeks passed and I came home one day to find a message on my answering machine. It was Beatlick Pamela, reminding me that Marc Smith, God of Poetry, was in town, and that I really needed to be there. Something about the eternal salvation of my soul being in the balance. Well, I figured, anyone who comes all the way from Chicago just to read poems in Nashville deserves a little support. We're not the Mecca of high literacy here, but we're not barbarians, either.
So on a rainy night in May, my friend John and I drove downtown and found ourselves a ringside table at Windows on the Cumberland, and waited for THE MAN, Marc Smith, to do his poetry thing. It was a long wait, as it turned out, for there were many local poets waiting in the wings to warm up the crowd, like preliminary bouts at a championships fight. But we had our beer and our Beatlick sticks, which we pounded furiously on tables after each poem was read, until, finally, the smoke cleared and it was time for the main event. Marc Smith was introduced, and this tall, slender man, wearing a smile like a kid caught stealing cookies, got up from his table in the back, and walked out on the stage before us.
He appeared shy but you could tell he was right at home. Everyone had come out to see him, and quite a few in the audience could recite lines from his work. This is surprising because Marc Smith's poetry has not been published. He commits everything to memory, like the Greek poets from Aristotle's age; so his readings are spontaneous events, unique to the occasion. His national reputation has spread mostly through word of mouth, which is, perhaps, the way it should be for a peripatetic poet.
He told us a couple of bawdy limericks to break the ice and then gave us a piece called "Cat on a Coffin," a work that bleeds with anger and the cry of a soul suffocating in helpless fury. The kind of fury that a witness, unable to swim, might feel at the presence of a child drowning before his eyes. As Marc spoke, his hands moved in the air, pointing to different areas of the room, like a tour guide giving directions. His eyes darted around, daring us to not listen. Often, he abandoned the mike completely, moving to other areas of the stage, too wired and in the flow of the moment for standing in one place, more like a nervous dancer than a man reading poems.
"Cat on a Coffin" says we are all, each one of us, responsible for the tragedies we witness. Not that we can save the child from drowning, but that we remember its struggle to live is our struggle. We share the common burden not to avert our eyes as we step over the drunk sleeping on a sidewalk, not to turn the other way when someone asks for a helping hand.
Marc Smith does not suffer the world in quiet desperation. Like a Socratic gadfly, he travels the beaten path of civic apathy and stirs up a commotion. But as we sat and listened that tonight, the quality revealed most often in his work was an attitude of mercy, concealed behind feelings of disgust and revulsion at a world turned on its head, but never giving in to despair.
Later in the evening, he gave us a work called "Ground Zero," whose rhythms of speech and undiluted wrath reminded one of a Robert Coover short story. Though paranoia about communism is on the wane, and the fear of nuclear death seems less immediate, Marc Smith reminds us of the collective insanity that once led to arms proliferation and backyard bomb shelters being marketed in America like aluminum siding.
At one point, during the telling of "Ground Zero," Marc sprang from the stage in a kind of evangelistic fervor, and ran up to the balcony, never missing a stanza. He confronted us face to face, not like a man reading from a podium, but like a friend who cares too much to be polite. He can't stand the prospect that even one person might not get the message. And what is the message? The message from Marc Smith is the awareness that poets do not belong to a priestly caste, separate from air-breathing mortals. They simply listen and obey the muse that lives within us all. They allow a side of themselves to come forth into the light of day which most of us keep locked away. Our response to poetry becomes a reflection of the dreams we gave up on, or the ones we conceal from the world around us. A world which, for better or worse, we have taken to be our own.
Later in the evening, Marc stood on a piano stool, gesturing with his hands like a man on bad liquor, singing songs about ultimate revenge. hearing and seeing him perform, you understand why the written word cannot grasp the experience. The sounds and gestures he uses are part of his poetry, as are the elements of rhyme, simile, and meter.
As the evening unfolded in that crowded room by the Cumberland River, the understanding of who Marc Smith is became clear to us. He is a storyteller. His poems are the stories he's collected from a lifetime of limping and scraping to make ends meet. But the ends never quite meet for some of us. In the hard-edged city, where salvation means a cardboard box on a windy street, a voice in the night cries out "let go my people," and a prophet is born. A prophet preaching about the casualties of love. For his flock is the walking wounded of humanity. His point of view, the fall from grace of the average man trying to get by on a crust of bread and a filet of truth.
Though anger, unchained, runs the risk of branding poetry as propaganda, Marc Smith has come to terms with his pain. Like any jilted lover, he gathers within himself the jagged pieces of memory needed to face another day. If love flourishes in the imagination, poetry is the sound of hope that gives voice to our wildest imaginings. Such poems as "To a Pearled Lady of Romance," "Melodies," and "Even With You Held in My Arms, I Am Alone" tell stories of unrequited love, passion, futility, and forgiveness.
For an hour and half that night, he read to us, taking a short recess about midway into the evening. He gave us a poem entitled "I'm Wearing My Father's Coat," which said all that needed to be said about losing someone you do not love but cannot forget. A man's father dies and the son now wears the coat that once belonged to his father. Why does he wear the coat? He did not love his father, and yet he wears the coat. Can it be nostalgia or pride? No. But it could be a sign that we are not sure who we really are, and so we wear garments that we have made our own to avoid the discomfort of revealing our confusion.
In poems such as these, Marc Smith evokes feelings and experiences shared by all of us—memories of affairs gone bad, of hungers unsatisfied, of guilt festering in the sores of old wounds. But, still, he believes that love is more abundant than hate. He quotes E. E. Cummings, Shakespseare, Carl Sandberg, and William Butler Yeats to remind us that pain and romance go inextricably together. Every whisper of bliss leads to fresh disappointment, but the human spirit is a tough flame to extinguish. Like trick birthday candles that are impossible to blow out, hope springs eternal.
One of the queerest of human obsessions is money, and Marc Smith gave a rebel's perspective on the relationship between money and work. Two of his poems summarized the bitter legacy of people tied to a job they despise. If money makes the world go round, then Marc Smith would just as soon go square. The brief span of time we have in this life is too precious to squander on things which bring no joy.
Marc Smith's poetry, being the antithesis of economics, creates no surplus value, no currency or exchangeable commodity of truth. When the poet sees the factory gates, he runs the other way as fast as his legs will take him. For him, the factory represents the last refuge of necessity, the place where souls go to die. And though a cynical few might say that poets and artists live off the capital of a munificent society, those who were gathered that rainy night to hear Marc Smith know better. They now that a world without poetry and song is a barren landscape, without grace or beauty, fit only for the rough trudge of beasts laboring.
--Stephen M. Jackson, October, 1991
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