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In the hands of Bruce Smith, devotions are momentary stops to listen to the motor of history. They are meditations and provocations. They are messages received from the chatter of the street and from transmissions as distant as Memphis and al-Mansur. Bulletins and interruptions come from brutal elsewheres and from the interior where music puts electrodes on the body to take an EKG. These poems visit high schools, laundromats, motels, films, and dreams in order to measure the American hunger and thirst. They are interested in the things we profess to hold most dear as well as what’s unspoken and unbidden. While we’re driving, while riding a bus, while receiving a call, while passing through an X-ray machine, the personal is intersected—sometimes violently, sometimes tenderly—with the hum and buzz of the culture. The culture, whether New York or Tuscaloosa, Seattle or Philadelphia, past or present, carries the burden of race and “someone’s idea of beauty.” The poems fluctuate between the two poles of “lullaby and homicide” before taking a vow to remain on earth, to look right and left, to wait and to witness.
About the Author
Bruce Smith is professor of English and creative writing at Syracuse University and the author of four books of poems. His book The Other Lover, also published by the University of Chicago Press, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
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By BRUCE SMITH
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDEVOTION: COIN-OP
When I can't make or do anything, I can always change some bills to silver and the costumes of my self to cloth. I can lug my fetid stuff three blocks in a gym bag as I would a corpse where a machine can't stomach the creases, but then wolfs a Washington like the local reserve or the lesser luck of a slot machine that gives back what it took—current for tender—the American, empirical, diminuendo of my hopes for capital. On the Laundromat TV: Abrázame Muy Fuerte—a soap washing the English out with stylish overlove. The Ethiopian shirtdress tumbles with the double knit and T-shirt and flannels of the unstylish boroughs. Swish of nun's veil and voile, the boy shorts, boxers, briefs—the names of undergarments like the names of god, hushed or unspoken, triumphant or cursed. On the screen the nurse/ ingénue kisses the patient/hero on the lips and it's the gamut of ravishment, affliction, fraudulence, magnificence, anguish, or argument for or against art. It's a wish to stop for a moment at a place ransacked of bias or bitterness by the pixilated acts and cleaned of your stink and grease, your self-embraces against the ticks and cancellations and disgraces as the television mimes in red and yellow fire the revolution of the wet load in the dryer. And yet the sisters Ruiz ruck the smocks and sheets of the last-hired broker and the Boriqua and the athlete. Cool in summer, warm in winter. The daughter does her homework in the corner. No loitering. No dyeing. Down a flight from the whip pan and walla of the street. Wash and fold. Abrázame muy Fuerte. The lost and found holds orphaned socks. The world should be Ruiz run, accommodating dirt, ransomed of terror for an hour. You get twelve minutes for a quarter.
Hörlust, roughly "hearing passion," pleasure in sound, but also pain as the child Tchaikovsky weeping in his bed screams, "This music. It's here in my head. Save me from it." His mother's voice peals like a bell. His father's chair squeals as he rises from his meal in E above C.... Save me from the run of octaves in my skull subtle as an owl's. Save me from the door slam and the plain song of the mosquito, the pandemonium of car alarms, the Donald Duck of the mall, and the twelve-tone row of the adored. It's here in my head, the tunings of the world sitar, the phrasings of the sax, the heave'e'yo of stevedores, what Whitman had in his head with the blab of the pave and the voice of a streetcar conductor he loved. When it's quiet, but it's never quiet, I hear the hum or hiss, that mammal or reptile, in the ark somewhere and the caterwaul of the pulse and the god thud. It's in here. It's nowhere. When we wanted Manuel Noriega out of his asylum in the diplomatic mission of the Vatican we played Van Halen's "Panama"—Pan-neh-mah-ah-ah, whoo, until the Vatican complained. They have some mortally boring nerve. Listen, it's the clamor or the aura of the subdued you hear. A sob, a rasp, a drone. Sound the thrill, sound the tempered clavier. A voice makes a sound tearing the air, the veil rent, the entrails spilled. Cold is a sound you feel in your back teeth where they stuck the needle. Still you must listen for the racket of the cricket's front knees or the electric locks of the jail. Click in E above C. Still, but it's never still, you must pet the cat until the cat can't stand it, the feedback of nervous static and the self made by the loop of sensation becomes the poet praising a god aroused to anger by the ugly and put to sleep by the beauty of the mallet and anvil in the inner ear. There's a photo of Thelonius Monk under the lid of a piano at Minton's, New York 1949, like a snapshot of Hörlust. You can see he's making the sounds in his head come out all over the staves. Offsetting the harmonies. He's leaning over the soundboard on top of the hammers. The smoke from his cigarette makes a long stem of a note, then something like a bass cleft. He smoked in quarter notes and rests. His stylish attack and swell. Man, piano, smoke—half killed by it, half wanting to kill.
DEVOTION: NEW YORK, JULY
Estas brutal, someone says about the heat or the boriqua walking down the street with a dulce con leche. My sister shivers. I paraphrase a fever when I mount the stairs to the roof to swelter among the compressors and powers, the lotus dome of exhausted air, the reedy pipes of no organ, the Egyptian jars of water. The body is postpartum in shimmers of tar and carbon. What's that flavor in the mouth left after the da-dum, da-dum? Dishes spill milk and catch the chatter of the planet bounced from desert to Sputnik to the solar wind of wherever: there was a wire, there was a burning tire and smoke, a sniper like a divine seen through a lens in the green black water of night, and then boys gone to vapor in a red mist, the body released from rumors of the precious, the glorified, the splendid five liters. Then the condolezza of a piano and a mother says cocksucker to the messengers and a lover sings to a lover the improvised device of desire. You wanted sugar? You wanted power? You wanted from the blood clot another to disfigure? You stare in the window of the fifteenth floor where a headless creature with breasts moves toward a headless creature who receives her. Now the windows glare and the sun bankrupts New Jersey, layers and waters and martyrs the West. There's no end to the chatter: From al-Mansur, I took some shrapnel here and here. On my kneepads I wrote my blood type in big red letters.
DEVOTION: THIRST REDUCTION
Wherever there was water—the upended lid of a mayonnaise jar in the gutter, the gutter, the sober silver puddle, the frenzied lake, the tear ducts, the dew, the beveled rain—we drank. We bent down our lips to any inscription in the stone, to any pock or V, a dog bowl on the porch, dimple, thimble, dent, collarbone hollow. We drank from the palm, from the philtrum—that crease in the upper lip. We wanted it quiet or we wanted Katrina. We sipped from the trumpet of the honeysuckle, swallowed like circus freaks the swords of the iris down to the hilt. We drank from your high-heeled shoes. Water to slake the American thirst in our midbrain where the American want was. It tasted a lot like misery dissolved in joy. We hoisted more than one in the bedroom, at the kitchen table, on the floor, over the sink, in the parking lot of the convenience store—our gills fanning a flame we couldn't put out. From the bubbler, the canteen, the sippy cup, from the pool of ink, we drank. Given our affliction anything could be juiced—a car, a daughter. (The art of juicing isn't hard to master.). In the wider-than-the-sky brain, there is a larger-than-yourself mouth that fastens around you like a lover, but a brutal, stupid lover, and here comes one now who can reach inside you to the source of terror and pleasure, under the ribs: Adam fetching a woman: that's how it felt. (It wasn't a disaster.) None of us had milk for the other, mammals that we were. We were soft-skulled creatures who cried when our ball fell down the storm sewer. We could hear but we could not touch the fluency—could not drink or drown, had to free ourselves from ourselves using only our mouths.
occurs when the light from an object shifts towards the red end of the spectrum: an increase in wavelength, a decrease in frequency. And I saw the white horse in the fields of central New York become at sunset a fiery red light and its rider was given the tools of shock and awe and the power to break the seals as light from the objects shifted and the oil wells burned on the day of shock and awe. Once there was circumference, now the field gets red, redder as in a room where blood spins in a centrifuge testing the body for its red ends. Things move away in waves. Puff and bombast, the Macbeth of things. Vision is vivisection. Redshift: Hiroshima, 1946. And I was born in a dilation of time as the wavelength lengthened and the creature said, "Come and see." And I heard, redshift, Lord Amherst say give the blankets with the smallpox to the Indians, redshift, and let the corpses dead of the plague be flung over the wall by a catapult, redshift, and the Assyrians corrupt the wells and Hannibal fill the water jars with vipers. Shock and awe. I move away from me. Once there was a room where I died just a little, now I'm chemical, awful, the target of light, the target of fleas and the moon turns blood red, light shifts, skin blisters, time dilates, the liver swells with toxins, and the sky rolls up like a scroll, redshift, in shock and awe. I write on my skin on the red end of the spectrum. My nation endows the chemicals that turn the skin to coal. And the sun turns black like a sackcloth made of goat hair as the oil wells burn. The vector of my life is a vesper mouse and the target is my skin. And in the fields of central New York I saw a riderless horse, a fiery red one.
There's a game on, but there's always a game on, and a tire fire in the distance squalling smoke in your direction and threshold limit values of cadmium and chromium like a Mannerist painting done in flame and volatile oils (plus benzene and coal tar and the oxides of our recent being on earth). The tennis is sensational, isn't it? The ground strokes, the aces, the donc donc like a translation of grunts to French. Thus the American is left with love after a crosscourt topspin, difficult to return, difficult to even reach. The sky is orange, like a level of threat, and gray like another country—one we came from or one we set on fire. 40—Love. We like a good game with perspiring. Our secretary of state likes anything, she says, with a score behind it. And behind that the perfumes of the superfluous and the shared vapors of our ruin, and behind that a sparrow, and behind that the work men do at the rehab because of the work men do. (The nerve ends keep forming a man composed of nerve ends.) The smoke smells like a French confection burnt in the kitchen of the prison. Play continues after rain. The sky is a black rose. The sensational moments scored for us, the sky scored for us into the adored and uncared for and the struggle that governs as someone faults and someone sweats and the fire governs.
DEVOTION: HIGH SCHOOL
The boys (mostly) in shop class vent the teethings of the band saw on wood and the filings of sheet metal through the industrial exhaust fan into the Midwest. Silvers the lilacs. Pollinates the lakes. The boys make something they can carry, although they carry little, like refugees, and the rest is dust, radically empty, free, unspeakable. They hammer out a loud first person. They like the noise, what noise? And they like the fire, swords beat into swords. They want sugars (mostly), and oceans and orders or the opposite, a magic that will spring them from detention. Wanting and thinking and making make for a muchness felt as something missing. Through their ear buds come the thuds of African drum circles, which will make their meager peculiar and make the high-pitched shouts of girls (mostly) rational. In their ears emo and cash flow. The wetness of waves unseen. I can taste the dust of their suchness. They have safeguarded themselves. I can taste their sadness. The unmade is their beauty and their worry. They unmake me. Because they disbelieve the world, they must make it again and again. A table or a footstool or a stash box or a sword or a cutting board in the shape of a whale. Busy and clever and industrious the world and noisy with lust and exhaust. Because they are instructed loudly and told to wise up and no handguns or cell phones they become wordless (mostly) except for the recitative of the engines and the drums in their ears. Because it will end in June, they will make it endless. They will alter the mufflers. They will modify the fenders and the first person. Because somebody knows somebody who lost a finger to the saw, they will be unable to imagine more than 9 deaths. The Tutsis, The Armenians, the Jews will be unimaginable. They have the second and third persons to suffer through right now, a class in Thou and It, as they are in the Middle Passage, the Trail of Tears, and wanting, like the drums say, a woman (mostly) to tell the whole story, to put their mouths on what's yet to be said.
DEVOTION: HUNAN HOUSE
How did we know the rooms, the ones with the Persian rugs and dust, salukis, and prerevolutionary violins, would be visited again in Anniston, Alabama and then in the closets of the Red Roof Inn? The old rooms had Ornette, had cinderblocks (for ballast) and books: Love's Body and Affluence to Praxis, we read until we thought we were classless. We cooked on the filaments of the hot plate rigged over the tub, a hell-bent, death-kissed breakfast. We had too much skin, too much grease to be god-forsaken. Something we wanted that wasn't sex or work made us leave the rooms and be in New York where we were the squires of smoke, redistributed princes of science. We wanted something from the pot liquor and the cured meats that wasn't home. In our Russian period we wore our father's overcoats and listened to the race stations to get the butter of the soul. What if the soul, says B, is unspeakable except in time? Not ecstasy but a musical history? But what if it's all chemical, says A, and works on the same principle as sea bass and chilies with enzymes and acids? What if beauty gets chewed and moves from solid to chyme to gut to the ruminated gift of molecule and heat? I don't think the spirit comes from inside, says B, like a sweat. We come alive agonized. Noah unloads the ark, then Syria, Persia, Rome, the fucking Turks, death marches and genocide, that's the soul: to survive three thousand years to lick the garlic sauce off our lips.
"And who, I wonder, was the man that was not content to prepare himself by hunger only for the satisfying of a greedy appetite?" —Pliny, Natural History
Wanting to use everything, wanting to be beautifully used ... Rind, pith, placenta, the orts, the scourings, the skimmed solids, skin rotted and bruised because of you and September. The globe of the peach has its North America darkened, sweet, too sweet, and I eat it on my way to other eating, pleasure monster that I am. The juice of first one, then two hemispheres devoured and then no place to stand and nowhere to put the lever. Nothing eats me but the space between the kill, the soup, the spill where I am perpetual and Spices fly at the receipt, said Dickinson, it was the distance was savory. Pick out the loose stones and sticks and soak the peas an hour. Combine mung beans, sprouts, chili, and the ghee—what was stolen from the gods, call it sap, call it the weeping body, call it butter, it also means desire, the semiliquid way to love the thing that's not, heat and ingredient thieved and received, then add turmeric and asafetida—devil's dung, the root that smuggled fire from the gods, cook an hour and add the carrots and cauliflower in florets, red radishes, boil and then simmer gently for two or three minutes to prevent burning. Haven't you been taken by the flame? Haven't you confused the fire and the song about the fire? Sprinkle coriander, cumin, garam masala. The poem used to mask the rot of meat and nations lost and found on the umbrels of a small flower. Add black pepper for empire. Add salt, for a man in love lives in a salted state, the Romans thought, and so to engross the present and sit with my hunger and be mulligatawny, add the rest of the coriander in a steamy blue bowl.
DEVOTION: FORT DRUM
I don't know if it meant collusion (to play together), corruption, complicity (to fold together), or duplicity (to fold twice), some venality in the knowledge, in the skill (it was for sale, it was technical), some crime, fraud, futility (we lost), a breach of trust, but I was a coach. I made the children run and stop. I made them watery and sincere. I made them chase balls like pups and told them a taller, faster man/ woman would have had it. I told them to defend themselves, duck, dodge, fake, bluff, trap, feint, act, fool. I made them devoted and naked and famous for a second in their forms. And then the nurslings, the nestlings went off to their endeavors, wet-haired, bruised, but not beaten, defending themselves. Went off to juvenile, to juco, to father's business or Jesus, went off to Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division where they learned Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage—what I did not teach them. Nor did I build character. And from Fort Drum came back damaged and disfigured, grieved in their bodies and their skin was different. Some cold. Escorted by men in full dress, ribbons, braid, medals who learned taciturn to honor them and I'm all horror of a mother who gets the knock on her door and her green gray life is a blur until they hand her a flag in a triangle. Honor and horror. The two theaters of the same American brain that monsters nightmare and character, fever and power, martyrs belief. I knew what it took to beat the spurious, treacherous out of my system by sitting, by davening, by learning to be a woman, shunting the terrible and beautiful, and why the tutelary gods slept outside my door as I dreamed I was in the mud of a day after rain in October and the children were romping and next to me was a stern man with a German name concerned with loss. I crawled forward in a field of crosses.
Excerpted from Devotions by BRUCE SMITH Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Devotion: New York, July
Devotion: Thirst Reduction
Devotion: High School
Devotion: Hunan House
Devotion: Fort Drum
Devotion: Red Roof Inn
Devotion: The Burnt-Over District
Devotion: Dizzy Gillespie
Devotion: J’s Dream
Devotion: Al Green
Devotion: New York, 1970
Devotion: Josephine P
Devotion: The Garment District
Devotion: Wuthering Heights
Devotion: The Bus to Utica
Devotion: Syracuse en Rose
Devotion: The Game
Devotion: Infant Joy
Devotion: Infant Sorrow
Devotion: The Republic
Devotion: Active Shooter Protocol
Devotion: Car Wreck
Devotion: The Insects
Devotion: Race Traitor
Devotion: The Unbidden