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This article is taken from PN Review 219, Volume 41 Number 1, September - October 2014.

Dave Smith’s Troubled Tales of the South Tony Roberts

Where I come from land lies flat as paper.
              Pine, spruce, holly like dark words
left from a woods. Creeks coil, curve,
              enigmatic as women. To know the depths
you must dream.
                                                                  (‘Night Pleasures’)

C. Vann Woodward, the distinguished Southern historian, once applied Allen Tate’s comment on ‘the peculiar historical consciousness of the Southern writer’ to Robert Penn Warren, adding that he ‘put this idea in personal terms’. In more than seventeen collections over 44 years the Virginian poet, Dave Smith, has done something similar. A Pulitzer Prize finalist (twice), he is the storytelling poet of the dark in the day, of the ‘hurts / we’ve hidden under memory’. As such he fits un/comfortably into a Southern literary tradition noted for its claustrophobic self-examination.

A reading of three substantial collections – Night Pleasures: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1992); The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems 1970–2000 (Louisiana, 2000); and Hawks on Wires: Poems, 2005–2010 (Louisiana, 2011) – gives us a map of much of the regional and psychic terrain he has covered.

Although born in Virginia’s Tidewater region in 1942, Dave Smith has declared that he was ‘never entirely comfortable with the neighborhood’. Yet the South is inescapable in a poet who once observed ‘my imagination is totemic, even historical’. His South is both a literal and a gothic landscape, for the poet aspires to ‘poetry with the solidity and the dreamy vision of a Gabriel García Márquez’. He travels as much in imagination as in ...

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