The massive, upside-down obelisk on the cover of Arthur Smith’s fourth book of poems, The Fortunate Era, draws the reader in for its bold simplicity. Competing with the sky for dominance, the obelisk’s copper edges cuts across the bright blue. A tree-top cowers in the bottom corner, reinforcing the largeness of the sculpture in contrast to the tree. And perhaps that’s the point. While the majority of the poems in this collection return to a lone speaker, the poems reach outward toward the cosmos, history, and ultimately the churning pull of progression that insists upon destruction with every accomplishment.
The Fortunate Era is taken from a quote by Nobel Prize Laureate Sheldon Glashow who is known for his work with sub-atomic particles. We live, he said, in “the fortunate era…in which there is matter,” a quote that suggests that life is to be celebrated despite its problems. (Glashow also named one of the flavors of elementary particles “charm,” which is the title of the collection’s final poem.) Reinforcing these concerns, the epigraph is from the award-winning science fiction novel, Riddley Walker. In a futuristic, post apocalyptic world, the main characters unearth remnants from our epoch, including nuclear weapons. In many ways, this book would be an ideal object for others to discover later as it is the physical manifestation of our time’s emotional concerns: how to live, love, and grieve in this temporary life.
The poem, “Main Street, Milky Way,” epitomizes these interests and ambitions. Here, a speaker grieves for his wife by walking to the Menil Museum in Houston and staring at a sculpture (which is the one pictured on the cover). The speaker’s personal grief, at first all-consuming, ultimately finds that one way to heal is to look outward at what is shared. He notices how others come to this same sculpture and linger, until finally the speaker realizes the holiness in the smallest of creations:
At dusk, common swifts
Swept those mists free of damselflies and gnats—
All of them holy, not one of them
No one knowing.
The inability to save the self is not something to be railed against, but something the poem hints at is the solace to suffering.
All of these lofty thematic concerns could give one the impression that the poems’ diction might be overstuffed and formal like that decorative chair in a living room’s remote corner; not at all. Smith is a master at merging poetic and casual diction in a way that not only adds surprise to his poems, but also sincerity. Consider for example the opening poem to his collection “Paradise” that describes Smith’s home state of California. “I used to live there” he says, evoking the title “Paradise” where the “downtown streets were cobbled with gold, honey /flowed—all that stuff. I’m not kidding.” If the poem continued in the vein of edenic stereotypes, it would not hold much resonance. But the speaker interjects these ruminations with a casual “all that stuff. I’m not kidding.” What follows is a subtle disruption of the paradise with a Miltonic sense of questions and adult experience.
Smith’s artistic weave of the formal and casual is a technique similar to James Wright’s wonderful alchemy with cliché and Jack Gilbert’s refreshing resistance to irony. Wright and Gilbert have continued to attract new readers partly because they offer something that differs from poetry today. Irony, once refreshing, is current poetry’s go-to trope, usually coupled with a cloak of pop-cultural references and jumping points that make one forget a real person with vulnerabilities might be lurking somewhere in the poem.
Smith’s poems offer an antidote to all this. When Smith uses the word “heart,” he more often that not means it in the sense of love. Take, for example, the poem “The Truth.” The beginning lists all that we complain about including viruses and vaccines, china and pine nuts, and “even Jesus.” Here the poem casually shifts into an incisive history of Jesus:
He lived. He looked
Into our hearts and found
Them crooked. He wandered
The warrens our hard-wired minds make
And found a few new ways
To praise it all.
The truth is
When he died he broke
His mother’s crooked
In this poem, heart is mentioned twice, and no one is going to object. Smith reminds us that Jesus was once simply a boy loved by his mother, and that his quest in turn left Mary alone.
While the poems grapple with how we can continue on amidst grief (Smith himself was a widower at an early age and has since remarried), the poems also grapple with the conflicts that arise from moving on. For example, “The Usual Is What You Get” tries to come to terms with reports about a foreign war serving as background noise during a dinner party. “It’s disturbing how much of the awful is greeting through / How little of the disturbing. Day by day / How much more little.”
Taken as a whole, this book operates like one singular self-questioning lyric. One poem in particular, “Before the Absolute,” provides a great image that speaks to this idea. The speaker has just moved into a new house when suddenly the lights go out. Smith captures that split-second of confusion when we ask, what is this darkness. That understanding in turn leads to more questions with the end result being a fumbling along in search for a light. If a criticism has to be made, it would be that while many of the poems benefit from the unifying vision of the collection’s thematic concerns, certain grounding points are too hidden from the reader. For example, while “Main Street, Milky Way” describes the sculpture on the book’s cover, readers do not have a way of knowing that.
The Fortunate Era is a book that offers real insight into our culture’s current concerns, but it does so by not following the usual methods. These are lonesome, hard-earned lyrical poems that, despite all of their sadness, give us hope that we are not suffering alone. The result is a collection of poems that is simply one of the best to be published in the last