inertia1

Editor's Note

There is an old story in literature that is told and retold in many different ways using many different conventions. That story is the survival tale. Life of Pi, chronicles what the book-jacket calls "A story that will make you believe in God." Indeed, some of the articulations inside this book seem quite fantastical; undiscovered islands existing entirely off of organic materials; a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker whom the protagonist, Pi Patel, shares a lifeboat with throughout the journey.
Pi Patel is an adolescent Indian boy whose family owns a zoo in India; after the political and economical uncertainty of India's future becomes clear, the parents decide that it is time to leave Indira Ghandi's India for the foreign soil, and economic prospects of Canada. Along the way, unfortunately, Pi's entire family as well as the crew (not to mention nearly all of the animals from the zoo), were killed when the ship hits disaster on the high seas. Pi, having been tossed overboard by crewmen, finds the lifeboat, unaware that Richard Parker is on this boat (evidently Parker is concealed by the tarp).
Pi soon realizes that he's marooned in the Pacific Ocean with a Zebra, who is wounded after leaping overboard; a manic hyena; Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger; not to mention that Pi has neither a radio nor weapons—to say nothing of the fact that there is land in sight. These are the cards dealt to Pi Patel in Yann Martel's Life of Pi. Before the book's ultimate calamity occurs, we meet a vulnerable young boy who is tormented for having Piscine as his given name; his classmates call him "Pissing," which prompts the change to "Pi." We also are given a full, un-censored helping of zoo horror; from the defenseless donkey set loose inside the cage of an unfed Bengal tiger (Richard Parker), to a narrative exposition of human-inflicted tortures often visited upon the animals. It's all fairly disquieting material—especially when you realize that it is true.
Nevertheless, it was the zookeeper himself (Pi's father) who put the donkey in the cage with the tiger (where it didn't survive very long). The philosophy behind the father's thinking may seem problematic (if not militaristic in nature), but it plays a part in Pi's later thinking (in the lifeboat) as he struggles between upholding his theological values while trying to survive.
Lost at sea, sea turtles passing by the boat while a hyena is running in circles, the boy who once declared that he wanted to embrace Vishnu, Jesus and Allah (all at once), realizes the horror of humanity's survival instincts. While Richard Parker is still hidden beneath the tarp, the hungry hyena looks for food; Pi is hoping the predator will attack the zebra so that he might be spared. Amidst carnage and pontification, Pi is horrified because of his disregard for the zebra's life. His conviction in the survival right of sentient life inevitably crumbles when he realizes that if he doesn't start fishing, he will starve to death.
The survival story forces the hard choices that a lot of us, living in the luxury of having beliefs that are never really tested, never have to make. At the end of the day, those who choose to feed off death, find comfort in theological texts. Theological documents and texts have been used to justify everything from the act of fishing, to the act of ramming airplanes into heavily populated buildings. These documents have been twisted to fit agendas (political and otherwise) as well as to give faith to people that life is worth something. It is nice to read a book where theology (whether you agree with it or not) is put to good use. Life of Pi is more about the "how" and "why" than about survival itself. Yann Martel's Life of Pi is recommended. Perhaps even more enjoyable than reading Martel's opus, was reading R.T. Smith's Messenger. This book is the follow-up (in a three-part series) to 1996's Trespasser, and the lead into 2003's Brightwood. Messenger picks up from the closing lines of Trespasser—which read "I will be love's gallows / all sap and marrow, / mad lament of shadows / and a mouthful of birds / dying to sing."
R.T. Smith is one who paints landscapes made of words and images straight from the soul—lamenting some things while embracing others.
In Messenger's first poem, "Sourwood," Smith poses a big question. When the beloved and celebrated keeper of their hive dies, "Who will tell the bees?" When I read this poem, I could only think of one person: The Messenger. Moreover, the question itself begs another question: who will act as the messenger in Sourwood? Who among the elders will inform this keeper-less hive that their future is as uncertain as the old rhythms of the ancient beliefs that tell of leaderless-hives demise?
It is a dependably true metaphor. It is this kind of metaphor that Smith weaves about the uncertainty in losing a leader that makes "Sourwood" such a powerful statement as well as such a fitting way to begin this collection. From the elegiac remembering of "dependable hymns" to the poem's denouement, where there is alarm and total uncertainty, Smith firmly plants a splendid lyric.
But who is this brave messenger? Or perhaps, "what" is this brave messenger? Some things in life become evident as nature tends toward flowering a messenger from the ashes of the deceased and evicted souls from long ago in the form of roads, legends, old rhythms of metaphor—not to mention the tireless observer who quietly inhales the same air the innocents and ancients took into them ages ago. The messenger is a conduit in a religion of language and nature.
We see another startling example of the messenger (and in this case as both witness and narrator) in the poem "Road Fever." Here, Smith's narrator describes while traveling in Ireland, on a particular road, that: "Before I was born the evicted/Irish walked this road,/with no notion where to aim/ their anger..." It is truth in words of the most touching sort. This remarkable lyric, gathered from the scant testament that the people had left behind in the form of memorial carvings in trees—as well as in the legend of what the narrator has read—would seem bare-bones to some. But the messenger has figuratively put his ear to the ground and filled the gaps of emotional knowledge—that history has forgotten—with a remarkable string of images. He has done something here that restores a reader's faith in this history in that he has chosen to undertake the task of peering through the eyes of the evicted to see what they saw and feel what they felt: "What was left/of their households bruised/their shoulders." The uncertainty was in so many ways; not just being evicted, but carrying the weight of their possessions on their shoulders. And what did they leave behind? It was merely spoiled potatoes and a broken gate. Particularly stunning is the simile of the "mist" as a "brothy fog" that "bewitches the evening air." It seems rather haunting—even though it is terribly fitting—compared to later, with the faces "from Gort or Ennis" which will appear "in kettle steam and tenant the starless evening."
There are many remarkable entries, such as "The Girls of Saint O'Connell Street" which are reminiscent—of Trespasser poems like "The Magdalene"—which often present some of his better final stanzas. Where else could Calvin Klein and John Calvin be associated but in the eyes of a poet?
Smith also pays tribute to James Joyce in "Spectator." Immediately upon finishing the poem (the last in the book), I was compelled to dig up my old copy of Dubliners to read its final entry "The Dead." It should be noted that the final page of "The Dead" is one of the finest pages of literature ever written. One could say that "Spectator" is just the right poem to end on.
Even in the face of doubtless tragedy, Smith keeps remarkable composure in putting a human contemplation forth to quell the sadness of even the worst moments through a sobering dose of lyrical harmony. His poems are often like songs that end with a chorus of neither gloom nor saccharine, but poetry: true to the language and true to the soul.
The speakers in R.T Smith's poems weave their lyrics—which glide with grace and mobility like a swan on a deceptively calm lake: unflinchingly—almost unnoticeably through the literal and figurative and thus, into a warm garment of language. One reviewer (Andrew Hudgins) fondly remarked that R.T. Smith was a trespasser (a holy trespasser—who flew into the heart of language, and even then, at the zenith, hoped to fly beyond). If we proceed from this feeling, we can also dub him the messenger—even if both titles must be shared in some part with those he so accurately observed—it is nevertheless true as he has delivered a fine collection of poems. Messenger is highly recommended.

J.M. Spalding
March 2003
New York