Dragging Anchor, by Keri Marinda Smith
Hanging Loose Press
65 pp.; $18
What are young poets up to these days? Sometimes they invent a new gamelan, and sometimes they breathe original music through a master’s reed. I think of the erasures of Robin Coste Lewis and the acrobatic forms invented by Tyehimba Jess in Olio as examples of the former—while Jess’s use of the documentary imagination in his first book Leadbelly, influenced by women from Muriel Rukeyser to Ruth Whitman’s Tamsen Donner: A Woman’s Journey, is an example of the latter. Keri Marinda Smith’s Dragging Anchor rhymes with the poems of Frank O’Hara in its quotidian joys and disarming takes on fraught subjects. Smith’s dislocations—she writes about displacement, divorce, suicide, and estrangement—share O’Hara’s equanimity, offered with a generous heart.
The title poem, first in the book, describes a wrinkle in time when the familiar turns uncannily strange. Change is part of growing up and growing away, and Smith charts it with the subtle, subversive lull of repetition:
“…you know something isn’t right you’re still in your berth but it’s like when you sleep with someone for many nights and when they turn you turn and when they breathe you breathe…when they get up in the night you feel that they’re missing and you know something isn’t right…”
What’s happened is the dissolution of a family, “your mother…remarried and you aren’t in a ship but in a small house on another river…and you ask about the journals, the years you all spent sailing…and why you can’t read them…” Still, the unfamiliar can be thrilling. The poet remembers slipping at night “into the water with the [anchor] chain…let your body also float along with the current…and see all the little creatures around you light up like magic, your mom taught you the word, phosphorescence.” But such a moment—the first “you can remember that was completely yours”—can happen only while the anchor is secure. It’s a tension that reoccurs throughout Dragging Anchor, neatly contained in an image of something that grounds you when it’s taut, and, when slack, spins you into the unknown.
Smith’s vagabond childhood—she was born in South Africa while her parents traveled port to port on a sailboat—lead to adolescence in central and northern Florida, scenes she renders with an outsider’s need to connect. In “Ocala,” she walks her father’s property at night to visit horses: “We smelled each other. When I walked back…I would hear them, very quietly though, walking along the pasture, following me. That was our friendship….” Her father takes her riding in the morning, “trying to find some trail he made up in his head;” lonely, she returns to the horses “to put my head against their necks and rub their wet hair, both of us probably thinking: I am here.”
Poise in the face of loss is part of Smith’s considerable charm. “Give Up for Spring” crosses spring cleaning and Lent with a series of instructions: “Hang up your used clothes/ignore getting them dry-cleaned/throw away boxes of photographs/maybe you’ll see those people again/…/leave one perfect coat/for yourself to take outside/and go watch the dogs in the park.” “Just get rid of as much as you can,” Smith advises—old drafts, old lives—and learn from those designated optimists off-leash. In “Wykoff Street” she observes the life of a married friend as she and Donna fuss about errands and politics, “changing places like dancers taking their turn…//I just want that look of anticipation/when she’s not paying attention/to me but staring…//waiting for Bob to come home/when she interrupts us to shout/ there he is, that’s him, walking up now!” Smith, like O’Hara, generates an intimacy that pulls the reader into her circle. The poet’s subject may be isolation, but the reader never feels alone.
“How I Got Here” is a mini-bildungsroman in verse, a summation of Smith’s odyssey and her gratitude for “here.” The longest—and final—poem in the book narrates her journey as a writer in the moments she “began to write the words down.” From feeling sorry for herself to writing music for others to heartbreak to “waking up in the hotel in Oakland/covered in bruises happy strung out no/plans…” to “…finally getting/to write for the first time/about snow,” Smith’s brio seems a like note to self and the reader: “Oh Lana Turner we love you get up.”