reviewed by Steven Karl
(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle Blow
Abraham Smith surveyed the poetic landscape and noticed a gaping hole left by the tragic-hero musician, Hank Williams. But how to capture the man’s contradictions? Eleven number one hits between 1948 and 1953, and yet could not proficiently read or write music? How to capture the biography of a broken man who left a legacy of failed marriages and tales mired in drugs and alcohol? How to capture a man famous for singing, “I’ve never seen a night so long/ When time goes crawling by/ The moon just went behind the clouds/ To hide its face and cry?” In Hank, Smith wisely avoids the temptation to rewrite a Hank Williams biography and instead goes for something much closer to the bone. Smith’s Hank oozes the essence of the joys and heartbreaks of the man found dead at 29.
While Williams sang he never saw a “night so long” with “time crawling by” Smith’s book reads like a torrent of days and nights caught up in the rage of an unstoppable flash flood. The book is 129 pages of pure lyrical gush and rush. Every paged packed with images and narratives piling onto top of each other and seemingly spinning out of control. Yet this “out of control” is the charm of Smith’s book. There a rawness that Smith captures by giving his poems freedom to roam, freedom to digress. In Three Poems, Ashbery decides a “truer” way is to leave everything out, Smith’s book is a valid argument for putting everything in. To qualify “everything” that is every off-note, every failed song, every whistle on a country road with the sun setting the sky orange, but everything is not necessarily “the facts.”
The book, at first glance, looks like one long continuous poem, however Smith separates the poems with what he refers to as “gibberish cuss.” Here’s the way the book begins,
//(@(@( call him pile of crushed oysters before the road crew drags it’s slick kid and flat and hard on the eyes it’s like it’s glazed with rock salt penny candy and the stuff that breaks new neighs from knackered oldies and sweat from rapt fear
Smith’s poems are long, skinny, ragged and left-justified. This form allows Smith to pile lines of lyric upon lyric at rapid speed. Notice how “the road crew drags” with it’s repetition of harsh r’s which then gives way to the slightly longer lines yet keeping constant the hard consonants. This poem is also an example of how Smith lets everything in. It begins with Williams but the perspective shifts as Smith uses “it’s” as an anchor to move from “it’s slick kid” to “it’s like it’s glazed.” Suddenly we’ve gone from thinking of Williams to imagining “rock salt penny candy” and “knackered oldies.” Smith not only infuses his poems with a Southern preacher’s lilt he also takes snippets of sentences known to many and reconfigures them such as later in the same poem he writes, “walk caustically and carry a big drink.” Smith simultaneously reminds the reader of the existing world as well as the recreation of the world he is manufacturing within the poem. Much like “it’s” works as a hinge allowing the poem to swing breezily, Smith frequently uses word repetition to keep the poems rooted as well as build a hypnotic cacophony for the reader. Such as later in the same poem (most poems are on an average 3-4 pages in length) he writes
call it inhaling sounded like walking on lightbulb glass that’s a good crier’s glass you can step on it and hardly know that type of glass is friend to sand feed sack patch on a square cut dress swears to the black hole effect like a cartoony you plus me knifed in a sap weep pine honey honey hush and hear the bells
Here the glass is used to build an associative logic moving from lightbulb glass to crier’s glass to glass being a friend of the sand which then propels us into Southern markers such as “feed sack” and “sap weep pine” to a moment of tenderness accomplished by beautiful alliteration, “honey honey hush and hear the bells.” While Smith modifies his meanings most of the poems are reliant on words as repetition and hinges. Here’s another example where some of Williams’ life seeps and saturates the poem, this is from “W%^$*”
a poodle with a chainsaw for a necked heart would not stand for pond talk you were either hawk river or you were up a tree with a strangle hold on a tornado or you sunk a knife in a cave bear’s heart and the bear to your ear did not space you this soft artifact i am mother why doth you deny me my kibble beamish and then it was you knew the secret leg hair you and the mother you and the bear were just walking around with just your hair
Smith leaves it up to the reader whether you will feel any sympathy for the “necked heart” the mother that feels denied which leaves one to wonder what does it mean to be “walking around with just your hair?” The fact that Smith layers his poems through side-way glances and divergences allows a level of ambivalence for the reader, however Smith likes his poems with both salt and pepper so he will also keep the reader on their toes by shooting straight. In “!+#*” he writes, “he died in texas/ ‘bout 900 miles south of moline/ doubled-over and his face went black/ overdubbed good night Irene/ out of oxygen/ because his lungs and his heart/ got into a little close/ stock tank drowning/.”
Williams dies on page 86, but the book doesn’t close with his death, as the Williams legend does not end there. The book is a swan song filled with bile and beauty, a book obsessed not with only a smiling broken man, but also the chickens and the “deadly woodsy things” and the “sexy swallow birds.” The poems after Williams’s death begin to explore what it means to be “blue to you if you are 70/ when you ain’t yet 30,” what it feels like to be older than a numerical age. And this question is not just one for Williams but also one for the South, one that questions history and how one lives under the shadow of or responds to a legacy. Hank is a long, sometimes brutal and deliciously difficult book. Poems sprawling for pages with little room for breath, reflection or sigh. Full-faced preacher celebration and lashing. This book is the never-ending devil dance to the tune of hallelujah. It’s sloppy and sprawling and gracious in its love and pains. It’s the “everything” that not only Hank’s life was but the “everything” of every life. Hank is all “crazy heart,” and “honky tonk blues” so clear the lungs and breathe in Smith’s poetry; it’ll become your favorite song or that pretty spot by the pond that you just keep coming back to.