Aaron Smith always says the hard, true thing. This is different from saying the hard thing only, or the true thing only. Some poems are hard, but leave us without relief or reward. Yes, that’s hard, we agree—but now what? Some poems are true, but too easy. We don’t understand the stakes, only the facts. Yes, that’s true, we agree—but so what?
In Primer, his third collection of poems, Aaron Smith does what all primers do: ignites the charge, applies the base coat, pumps fuel to the internal combustion engine, his and ours. In other words, these poems rev, glow, fume, and explode with every hard, true line—every hard, true gaze into the speaker’s mirror and every hard, true gaze into the reader’s eye. This is a primer for life, but what kind of life? you may ask. For a man’s life, for a gay man’s life, for the life of a gay man approaching middle age. This is a primer for living alone, for living with depression, for living after someone you cherished has died—a primer for letting go and holding on tight, often at the same time. This is also a primer for living with the kindness and cruelty, courage and frailty of others, and harder still, truer still, a primer for living with the kindness and cruelty, courage and frailty of yourself. So it turns out this is a primer for everyone’s life. This is even a primer for living your life as a poet:
I haven’t found words for the gray-smudge sadness under my sternum.
I got everything I wanted and didn’t realize it. I got nothing
I wanted and made excuses.
I don’t trust anyone, least of all a poet, who tells me they have found all the words. I don’t trust anyone, least of all a poet, who tells me they got everything and were satisfied or got nothing and made due. Poets and non-poets have these in common: relentless hunger, unfinished business. Sappho put it this way: I yearn and I seek. Smith puts it this way: How do I tell them I’m lost?
He also puts it this way:
If there is grace, it must be
this big. We all try to hold that bigness
in our chests, and, failing, live under
beauty we barely understand
And this way:
Poets and dentists have high suicide rates:
there must be something about staring all the time
into a dark hole.
And perhaps best of all this way:
Are you going to hurt yourself?
Isn’t that what it means to be alive?
Remember when a parent or teacher or other well-meaning adult expressed concern for us with these words: “I don’t want anything to ever happen to you.” This book is a primer for how to respond when something does, as something inevitably will. All the happenings happen here, and also the fears of what might happen:
What was I so afraid of?
I felt like a gay man with a secret wife,
or like what I was:
a gay man who was afraid of what he might like.
In the same poem, “Bleached,” this speaker tells us he was
So dumb in those days,
afraid someone would know I had a body
I wanted to do things with.
Who hasn’t been “dumb” in this way? Who hasn’t dwelled, at least some of the time, in the “careful quiet” or “avoid[ed] the room with the mirror”? Who hasn’t also been “more//than thirsty more// than a body”? Who hasn’t “turn[ed] up the music until [their] ears hurt?” Who hasn’t tried to be present and absent simultaneously, or heard these words vibrating inside their skull: “Eat it all. Shove it all down your throat./ Shove it down.” In other words, keep it, consume it, hide it, pretend it never happened. This book primes us for all of the above.
The hard thing, the true thing: they are synonyms in Smith’s world. They overlap in this finely rendered kaleidoscope of thinking and feeling, grasping and releasing. Here’s one such luminous layering:
One night when I first moved in, when the meds
weren’t working, I turned the knob just enough
to release gas and leaned in close to the click, click,
click, not letting the burner ignite, wanting so badly
to fall asleep inside that click. A nothing
I could wake up in where I wouldn’t clench, count,
walk back inside that door every day,
afraid to leave, always checking.
When I say Aaron Smith is a confessional poet, I mean he is a hard and true descendent of Plath and Berryman, who make cameos in these poems, as well as Sexton and Olds, who hover just beyond their margins. When I say Aaron Smith is a confessional poet, I mean this as the highest form of praise.
All writers who work in the self-referential arts, a term I have borrowed gratefully from Paul John Eakin, are familiar with, if not accustomed to, the accusation of “navel-gazing.” But here’s what Aaron Smith does that brilliantly subverts these concerns: he gazes at the whole body, not just the navel. He gazes at his own body, the bodies of others (“David Beckham is People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive” is especially memorable in this regard), and the bodies of work—pop culture, literature, conventional wisdom, et al.—embedded like bricks in the walls of the larger world.
What is the consequence of such body-gazing? A harder, truer, fuller-bodied kind of poem:
I’m tired of my penis: messy
pulse, stupid lump, dumb need
that never leaves. I hate how men
taste dirty even when they’re clean.
His mouth could be
a seagull over blue
horizon of shirt if
a bird could be pink
and sexual. His but-
tons are undone just
enough, chest hair
edging his collar.
In those days, I never
expected much, believing
a man must be desperate
if he touched me […]
He gathered his clothes
while I drunk-slept.
Men gnawed at my ribs,
knelt between thighs,
but not one ever wanted
Which brings me to the power of juxtaposition, which is another kind of friction after all—two bodies of meaning striking, sparking at their site of difference.
In one poem called “Jennifer Lawrence,” Smith writes in bold, full-bodied lines, blunt and humorous:
to tell her that if the asshole
is the crucifixion then
the prostate is the second
The poem that follows, sequentially juxtaposed, is also tonally juxtaposed. Let it be known that Aaron Smith is never a one-note poet. In this subsequent poem called “Still Life with a Hundred Crucifixions,” the same event of the crucifixion reappears, but now with softly, with full-bodied tenderness:
a book from the shelf: Jesus
on every page, rendered in oil
from other centuries, hungry
and sad, scrawny and hammered
to different-sized crosses […]
He took my hand, placed it
on each slick image:
How did the painter make his eyes look like that?
What makes someone’s eyes look like that?
Another stirring juxtaposition, this time of callousness against compassion—Smith never lets us forget they are two sides of the same human coin—appears in back-to-back poems, “Evangelical” and “Lessons.”
In the first, a younger incarnation of the speaker is forced by his mother to spend time with Tony, who “keeps his glasses on even in the pool” and whose “swim trunks are the shorts/ he wears to school.” The hard, true thing:
His goofy laugh embarrasses me,
the way he lets everyone see him happy.
He doesn’t have a towel
and hogs the inner tube.
I hate the hair under his arms.
I hate when he splashes me in the face.
Then, in “Lessons,” our grown speaker recounts how his father, in retirement, is learning to play the banjo. The hard, true thing:
When I took piano as a kid,
he never wanted to listen, attended
recitals because mom forced him.
Relieved when I finally quit:
Such a sissy instrument.
And yet, here comes the turn toward tenderness, and the haunting poignancy of the final line:
From your last visit to this one
am I getting better?
I’m happy to lie, to say yes.
I’m not a father.
I don’t have to be cruel.
In “This Exact Sky,” one of my favorite poems in Primer, the lines fume and glow with stunning, full-bodied contrast all the way through. Here’s the first flicker:
You’re stoned on medical marijuana—
not your prescription—but still
this feeling is more than that.
And the second:
B and T have a baby now and though you
don’t like children, you like this baby
tonight, whisper in her ear:
Pay attention, kid, it goes fast.
Get ready. Here comes the third:
After so many months of sadness,
a whole winter teetering
the familiar edge you’re just,
for an instant, afraid of again, it’s nice
to feel simple and clear.
How did you ever feel that sad?
And then this turn of the kaleidoscope toward an ending: the friction of one thing distinguished from another, the language parsed and stretched at once, and that ache in the back of your throat as you read these words—their hard truth that you, the reader, can’t help but recognize:
It’s not that you understand
your life any better, or know how
you woke up, started again. It’s that
you want to be here, right here, in this
backyard under this exact sky with these
good people, and you don’t want
your stupid, tiny life to end.
Aaron Smith always says the hard, true thing. Perhaps for poets in particular, it is hardest, and truest, to read that “Poetry is such a small dream.” Yet Smith helps us dream it bigger, dream it better, and I, for one, will always be grateful.