I was quite intimidated to write about this poem at first. John Smith's poetry resides in a metaphysical realm that I only dream in...
by John Smith
It starts with three or four raisins balled up
and tied into a square of sugar-sacking. That’s what,
as an infant, they give him for pacifier.
It gets him through the difficult years. Later
he becomes an avid romantic, spends his life
evoking the undefinable: sweet
bolus ever out of tonguetip’s reach.
Possession would be anticlimax:
the whole point is to push beyond formulation,
to rest in nothing. Importance lies in grey areas
or dark matter that surrounds—not in the hard
crusts and centres everyone else seems to take for real,
but in guesses and glancings, in vanishings before contact,
the unique satisfactions of a pristine planet of
anticipated joy encountered as joy remembered.
Also, isn't that ball of raisins kind of a kind of sticky, yucky way to describe the essence of youth???
It is the confusion, or defamiliarization, of time in this poem that is most jarring and amazing at first. John Smith is able to manipulate the reader into the complex world of the poem by soaring quickly through a man’s life from infancy to adulthood; and yet, all of these moments are constructed to be happening simultaneously. The final line “anticipated joy encountered as joy remembered” hails a time that is past and future as well as present. This feature of time as well as the marvelous image of “hard / crusts and centres everyone else seems to take for real” immediately brings the reader of this poem into a position where it is necessary to question his or her assumptions about time, poetry, and how meaning is determined.
This poem demands to be unraveled. It is as “undefinable: sweet” as its elusive imagery and as the “bolus ever out of tonguetip’s reach.” I could say that “Possession” of this poem, enunciating exactly what Smith is accomplishing “would be anticlimax,” let alone impossible. The poem resists reductionist readings, and pushes beyond the boundaries of poetry that I normally, abashedly expect.
The poem begins with a concrete image of a ball of raisins, a fathomable idea of a pacifier for an upset child. The images that follow widen and deepen until we reach an abstract questioning of the nature and common assumptions for the grounds of reality, or what is “real.” This poem, and presumably the entire collection, exemplifies the ability for a concrete image to ground a complicated idea. “It Starts” reminds us that poetry can extend beyond the everyday into questions of what the everyday is.