by Bruce Smith

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“There are two schools: one that sings the sheen and hues, the necessary pigments and frankincense while the world dries and the other voice like water that seeks to saturate, erode, and boil . . . It ruins everything you have ever saved.”
            Spill is a book in contradictions, embodying helplessness in the face of our dual citizenship in the realms of trauma and gratitude, artistic aspiration and political reality. The centerpiece of this collection is a lyrical essay that recalls the poet’s time working at the Federal Penitentiary at Lewisburg in the 1960s. Mentored by the insouciant inmate S, the speaker receives a schooling in race, class, and culture, as well as the beginning of an apprenticeship in poetry. As he and S consult the I Ching, the Book of Changes, the speaker becomes cognizant of other frequencies, other identities; poetry, divination, and a synchronous, alternative reading of life come into focus. On either side of this prose poem are related poems of excess and witness, of the ransacked places and of new territories that emerge from the monstrous. Throughout, these poems inhabit rather than resolve their contradictions, their utterances held in tension “between the hemispheres of songbirds and the hemispheres of men.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226570556
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/08/2019
Series: Phoenix Poets
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 1,175,710
File size: 486 KB

About the Author

Bruce Smith is the author of six books of poems, most recently, Devotions, the winner of the William Carlos Williams Prize. He teaches in the MFA program at Syracuse University. 

Read an Excerpt



Beheadings, slaughter of the innocents, suffering and sorrow say all the stabbed, ecstatic art of the museums and more of the same says the news, the glowing, after glowing now what, but also in the crowded galleries babies held by mothers looking at babies being artfully held in the celestial rain, the fat buttery ones, part putto,
part lard, who appear ready to slip from mother's arms out of the frame into smoke and storm, the nonart part of the world, that disobedient, expensive part like a furious sea you paid to cross in an inflatable plastic raft, a child's toy in a bath it looks like from America where we have no fate we can't make. Our stars are wire transfers and firearms. Our future the bewitched mixture of fuel with seawater with hubris that incinerates the self. And character is the decree of childhood evaporating into unauthorized space where the I/you is so much questioning and answering nonart. In art I see the gold leaf, the gashes, the beautiful throats and hear the trauma arias of martyrdom that are the same in nonart cities and deserts.
There are two schools: one that sings the sheen and hues, the necessary pigments and frankincense, while the world dries,
and the other voice like water that seeks to saturate, erode, or spoil. It can't be handled.
It can't be marble. It wants to pool and vanish and pour and soak the root systems. It ruins as it changes as it saves.


I walked in the romantic garden and I walked in the garden of ruin. I walked in the green-skinned,
black-skinned garden of Osiris who was ripped to pieces and reformed and adored. I walked in that wet,
incestuous plot. Am I the only one who reads for art? I walked in the garden of Amadou Diallo whose shadow was punctured by unnumbered shafts of light leading from West Africa to America where wallets are guns. The chirp you heard in the garden as of two black holes merging is what we call the soul. And when we cup our hands to drink at the fountain we make the shape of his skull. Am I the only one who reads for thirst?
I walked in the gardens of Houston where lizards took their colors at the borders between terror and wonder,
dread and leafy glade, between silence and Sinatra.
I walked in Pope's garden in Twickenham that rhymed wilderness and picturesque, walled in and out the stunted self. In the garden of ruin new growth from the palms I read as artful, neutral. In the romantic garden the fascists sing, "I love you, I love you not." Statues in the gardens are wrapped in Mylar blankets and blue plastic tarps like refugees. I read them for reflection. I read for nation.
I read for color and form. In the orangery of Guantanamo,
in the grapevine of Babylon, I'm lost. I went there for the buzz,
the fiction of silence and a better self. Dressed sentimentally in a dynamite suit in the garden of dates and pomegranates,
I read for patterns of the blast.


It's all butter and butter theft, thunder and the sloppy nature
  of goodwill. It's all distress and excess, having it out over home. The train station, the new cathedral.
  The cathedral, the theater of murder, American-on-American differences and distances, when some liquid machine starts
  to slant the world, sets shadow in motion, a skyblue tarp the new heaven, rain on skin the new numen,
  pepper spray at the borders the new sentiment,
the new outcast fate. Two shoes ruined, chewed by shepherds
  of the devil, the vamp and tongue demolished like what Nina Simone did to a song, cleaving it
  to/from home. How long before the outsole is ripped from the pink insole and the shank,
  a leathery flag of your surrender to all the parts of speech that fail
  to represent objects, subjects, qualities, or states?
Air swarms to a certain density that appears
  as one you hurried to when you were troubled,
Dickinson said her mother wasn't.
  And of her father, the oldest and oddest sort of foreigner. A sweater and water, the new
  father and mother, Republican and ghost, a far-fetched thing replaced with law or storm or idle kindness from afar.


A man with CRCK on his snapback. A man in a BLDBTH hoodie
[what happened to the affable vowels?]. I stay shy of the men on the bus because we know who we are. We are propelled by kimchee and cologne that smells of diesel fuel and demon.
Five hours of trance and hard consonants. I find a seat next to Grace Paley, lit by a tiny beam, who asks, Is there room for the unredeemed? She offers me a hard candy, says,
Do the dead ride for free? And then we do what the dead,
discounted do, we open a thin, neat bound book and read as if that would feed or suffer or cut someone with its white pages. Heat and the damp flames of us subtract the oxygen from the air that boredom sharpened into despair.
This is the time between the shy, nocturnal creatures with dilated eyes and the diminished ones that ransack the burnt-over places. At Big Daddy's we stop to pick up the escapees from the second and third great awakenings. These visionaries have seen the ruby of the brake lights and have gone forward to be shattered and to be known by Grace. They have bundled and touched one another in a marriage sanctioned by the vowels of the Onondaga Nation. Could each of us have, please,
a more modest incline and a moon we could douse like a raccoon douses the world? Its name means brother who scrubs everything. Grace says, The story is not the cargo. The story is a couple of hours and a cold sandwich you eat and it vanishes into you in the lights of the oncoming and in the fundamentalist war between moving and keeping still. It [bus, breath, voice, distance]
is a longhouse that smells like a city of roasting meats, smothered fires,
sewage, and perfumes, where hate and pleasure can live, almost cordially if we relinquish our convictions. The invention of need in a lost language happened here with a word or two doused in the dark. A woman with a piece of toast who shivers. A woman with opera-mask slippers.
And then a word that fails as soon as it is spoken, an exhaustion that's a form of pleasure, although Grace says, Whose pleasure? Whose work?


Goodbye Rufus and Ditzy, Goodbye Don Dove, Goodbye Tim Early,
  Goodbye Bebe Barefoot.
Goodbye to the Brooklyn Jewboos and the boys from Des Moines
  who wandered in their trail of tears to Tuscaloosa.
Goodbye to the Ur ovens of Woodrow's. I loved the slaughtered hog,
  the gloried grease, the human nature standing around the fire.
Goodbye to the state flower — the shredded layer of rubber
  the truckers call alligators.
Goodbye to my face in the window at night.
Goodbye to the songs I sang to you beginning in bright vocals
  continuing to the dark lies and ending
  in parlando where our burdens are put down.
Goodbye to those I could not understand and could not understand me.
  When you said, "Troy," I heard, "Charlie."
Goodbye All-American Storage and my birthright exchanged for a mess of postage.
Goodbye rained-on cardboard box. Goodbye corrugation — chart of my heart.
  Goodbye roach, you were my ontology.
Goodbye wind twisted in the Gulf and slapped
  and spun through Tupelo
  and sent like the po-lice to the homes of the poor.
Goodbye Druid City Car Wash whose spray was scrupulous to me at two ayem,
  whose mist was an exercise by Saint Ignatius
  on sympathy with the suffering.
Goodbye to my face in the window at night.
Goodbye Blondel. Goodbye Aquanetta.
Goodbye, too, to the West Alabama Veterinary Clinic where I waited
  with the sick furred thing with the owners of Wabbles,
  L'l G'l, Dollbaby, Mrs. Pinkerton, and Honey Bun
  for yours is the pure devotion.
Goodbye to the Crimson Tide fans who worshipped the hypermasculine
  for yours is the pure devotion.
Goodbye Mr. Vaughn of the 103rd bomber squadron, blind, kind, for no white reason.
Goodbye to the machinery of the horizon and the fried foods of Ezell's Catfish Shack,
  where I could taste my mud and slumber.
Goodbye crepe myrtle and the vertigo of the last hundred years.
  When I lived here [there] George Wallace died,
the coach was fired, and you were my alibi.
Goodbye three hours' drive to M'fs. Goodbye elsewhere.
Goodbye red Camaro in a black bra. Goodbye hairdo as the Kabuki
  of the South. Goodbye blues.
  If there's a labial among y'all, let it be heard now.
Goodbye Alfonso. Goodbye Tyrone. Goodbye Stella. Goodbye student
  who prayed for me in my sin and affliction.
Goodbye freight train for yours was the pure devotion.
Goodbye nights of the fragrance I never named and days of noon, tongue, and handgun.
Goodbye manners as tongue and handgun.
Goodbye unknown woman with a drink in her hand who burst through the tea olive,
  without spilling, walking in the back and out the front door.
  I kiss your Jack and Coke goodbye.
Goodbye to the bird saying "Preacher, Preacher."
Goodbye to the dirty silence clarified. Here's my reparation.
  Here's my face in the window at night.
Goodbye to the 4x4s on lawns and the Pain Care Center.
  I became an orphan like you here [there].
  There was no shade for me under pin oak or magnolia.
Goodbye to the Black Orchid and your transvestites. Goodbye Miss Mystery.
  I kiss your post-op lips goodbye.
Goodbye and thanks for the Jesus.
Goodbye Time as a pure form of sensuous intuition. Goodbye Immanuel Kant
  of Queen City Boulevard.
Goodbye Bible verse on the cash-register receipt.
Goodbye pool hall, cabstand, pawnshop, and storm-door company.
Goodbye "He's as rude as a Yankee."
Goodbye red velvet cake and ersatz rue.
Goodbye Little Zion Tabernacle Church with your brush arbor
  built from wood milled in the hollow
  and your darker than blue.
Goodbye bathtub covered with a mattress during the tornado.
  You took my form.
Goodbye tetchy, goodbye triflin', goodbye mama love and moon pie.
Goodbye my little scuppernong.
Goodbye interlocutor with the lost. I kiss you reluctantly
  as one kisses the forehead of the child
  whose fever will kill.
Goodbye to the Enola Gay of race, and to Mr. Vaughn, who flew in you,
  blind, kind for no white reason.
  Thank you for the two-dollar bill.
Let me lie down between Rama Lama's and Vinyl Solutions one last time.
Let me lie down between the porch and the battle reenactment,
  the bombers and the lambs,
  the bonfires and the birthplace of Sun Ra.

Wisteria crushing the tin shed cannot find me.
From now on the law against kudzu is lifted.
From now on I will be translated into this.
You were my Dollywood. I was your Judas.
  Maybe some Tara will save me.
I will look back.
I will become cold and salted.
I will go up into the morning, sometimes.
I will be measured. I will be shattered.


after Alice Oswald

Take away my engine and I shall engineless go to find you. Take away my bees and I will flowerless walk the vectors of sweet nothings until I'm face-to-face with Monsanto.

In my doomed town where small mechanic skills make the evenings strung out and shrill with compressors and vapors, I listen for crows and wrens to overdub our nation's ills,

which are forgetting and further forgetting so I don't recognize my hand,
the length of rope, the knot, the limb I throw it over, the aid and abetting

of the body. The shadow spans from Senegal to my doomed town where Mrs. White cuts off a limb that drops its intractable leaves in menacing random and illegal

patterns on her lawn. The proposition is to each cut off a limb, a sacrifice to prevent destructions more terrible in the future,
as did the Sioux. Because I lack imagination

somebody, a Christ, a boy in custody, dies each evening. Three days' wait and I forget the undertaking, the uprising, that way of life with redemption. I forget the lies

modified by art. I forget the ongoing story of love tending toward catastrophe,
the oblique, gaped, murderous corridos ending in the underworld and unknowing.


My guide and I first purified before the sacrifice,
but can you be purified, I asked her, without being banished or erased? My guide said, it's always but with you, why can't you just archive the whiteness or curate the liquidity of the city and play your music or whatever you do? Here,
she said, is where the runaway slaves made a way through,
a cut through the thicket, a hairline crack in the salty progress and the saccharine business of April, there, can you see it?
I don't see it, I can't see it, I said, I see mud and the under/
over story and gold-green buds like a child's coloring.
What were their names? Names? she said. They had spoilage like fruit and a market price and an exchange rate but no names.
The shining things of your city are their names. But what did they call each other when they rhymed, I said,
when they licked the salt off one another? It's always rhyme with you, she said. They called each other what lovers call each other after they've been worked from can't see to can't see: orphan and mi alma and baby and flaca and boo.
It's always history with you, I said. It's always ecstasy with you,
she said. We walked. It was trash day, translucent bags in front of the church, pearlescent swelling cases like frog spawn.
Black bags in front of the shelter, little todesfugues,
minimal deskilled art. The cans are brutes or toters,
makeshift mausoleums or stops along the sublime,
equal in size to the body if it were smashed and bound,
leaking out pork-chop bones, silvers, oils. Rats and crows rip into human resource and order. Look at the relics from Byzantium. Look at the maggots and the rubies.


Are they unmaking everything?
Are they tuning the world sitar?
Are they taking an ice pick to Being?
Are they enduring freedom in Kandahar?

Sounds, at this distance, like field hollers,
sounds like they'll be needing CPR.
Sounds like the old complaint of love and dollars.
Sounds like when Coltrane met Ravi Shankar

and the raga met the rag and hearing became different and you needed CPR after listening and tearing was tearing and love was a binary star —

distant bodies eclipsing each other with versions of gravity and light.
Sounds like someone's trying to smother the other — a homicide or a wedding night.

The television derives the half-full hours.
Time exists as mostly what's to come.
Losing also is ours ...
I meant that as a question.

Is I the insomniac's question?
Are you a dendrite or a dream?
Between oblivion and affection,
which one is fear and which protection?

Are they transitive or in?
Are they process or product?
Are they peeling off the skin?
Are they Paris or the abducted?

They're reading something after Joyce,
postmodern stuff that can be read but not understood except as voices rising and falling from the dead.

Do they invent me as I invent their faces?
I see surveillance gray wasted with bliss at having thieved identities.

In the a.m., when turns to usted,
the sun clocks in to overwrite the night with hues and saturations and the red hesitates, for a second, to be incarnate.


The dream was clean of all indebtedness.
I owed nobody nothing. I was in my skin although there was a voice in the distance,
bees, maybe, or a fire or an ocean. I woke in the white project, white noise in the ongoing occupation. I woke in the future perfect tense where I will have been immediately released from the reckoning of my dream after serving the mandatory minimum. I will have been immediately treated for my pain. I will have added years to my life, bank to my bank, unbent some notes, attended, heard: words were spoken to me and I comprehended. I heard. I was lavishly defended. I was less arrested, more gently delayed. Wires worked for me,
transmitting, distributing the currency, our way of life. Clouds worked for me, optics,
lawyers, nature, flattery: the hands of the praying mantis, the eye of the hurricane, gravity.
The weight at the end of the rope worked for me, the statute, the plastic explosive, the xylem and phloem in a tree.
Worked for me. Was that singing sung for me?
I played the lottery and lost, but the silver I scratched off fell like vulcanized spectral snow. Losing was a luxury I could afford.
Still I had the itch from the scratch tickets and called it character. I called it ambition. I called it milk and penicillin,
called it complexion. Angels explained.
I heard and I abided with a slight fatigue.
I felt flushed. I felt fundamentally pale.
In my mind were the spirals and stars for which I was treated with the world.


Excerpted from "Spill"
by .
Copyright © 2018 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Beautiful Throat
Summer Rain
Goodbye Tuscaloosa
Ballad and Proposition
What Are They Doing in the Next Room?
The Whiteness
Marvin Gaye Sings the National Anthem, 1983
“Are You Ready to Smash White Things?”

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