Book Review   

The Foot of the Rainbow, by Thomas R. Smith, Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. $15.

Reviewed by Ralph Murre

When someone asked me recently for advice on writing poetry, I said, “Above all, don’t put on airs; write in the simplest possible language that conveys whatever it is you're hearing.”  I might just have handed them a copy of Thomas R. Smith’s The Foot of the Rainbow to illustrate the point.  Indeed, Smith says it himself as he opens the book with a list of “Commitments,” one of which is:

   To earthly language in writing, against
        the temptations of academic head-
        tripping, the image always preferable
        to the abstraction that may merely
        deepen the reader’s disembodiment.

This certainly does NOT mean to me that there should be no inventive use of this “earthly” language, no play, no music.  Smith’s work provides usually, but not always, a good measure of all three. At no time does he allow some device or conceit to get in the way of the poem, or his readers’ access to it.  This is the work of a mature artist, certain of his craft; simply, effectively, and honestly allowing us in.

The book is organized into four sections, each of which may be regarded in its own light, as each is endowed with its own character and each is an element making its own contribution to the overall structure.  For readers, these separate divisions serve largely as aids to navigation as we cruise the pen’s dark stream across the page, as Smith puts it, in the book’s first poem, “Afternoon at a Resort.”  This opening movement of The Foot of the Rainbow is titled “The World We Live In," and its poems regard, for the most part, the writer’s relationship with the planet as he travels through it, but also, his relationship to traveling companions.  In what I feel is one of the most original pieces in the book, that companion is the writer’s own life, which he is somehow able to step back from; to view life itself as a separate being. I quote this poem in its entirety:

     My Life and I

     We are generous with each other,
     though it’s evident anything
     I love instantly becomes his.
     I never tire of his stories, which
     I know for a fact are all true.
     For his part, he listens
     without ridiculing my hopes.
     Where we meet is the moving balance-
     line between memories and plans.
     We make a complete circle, his
     looping behind, my sweeping ahead.
     How could I ever feel poor,
     knowing the note of each moment
     is backed by the gold
     ingots of those decades
     he is carrying for me safely
     in a satchel under his heart?

Smith walks us through this first section of the book with a great deal of finesse, seizing the curtain of appearances to yank it aside, so that we may see for ourselves … cumulous clouds . . . shaking their electric fists . . . ; so we may meet the lady of carousels, painted cars, and fortune and wave for ourselves knobby shillelaghs of brussel sprouts, to borrow some phrasing from a few of these poems.

It is in the second movement, “Words and Music,” where I feel the poet Smith occasionally wrestles with the closet prose-author Smith.  This section is composed largely of homage to various of the author’s heroes, which coincidentally, are mostly my heroes as well, so it’s hard for me to define just what’s bothering here.  I’m sure that for many, these are going to be some of the favorite pieces in the book, but I’m afraid that poetry about poetry, about poets, about musicians, will very rarely equal the strength of the work of the original artists, so in my opinion, the thoughts might more effectively be the subject of straight prose, rather than being presented as poems. Do not surmise from any of my ramblings that there is not strong writing in this portion of the book; there is. Here’s Robert Bly, Bill Holm, Ted Kooser; here’s Pablo Neruda, but all, sadly, once removed.

If “Words and Music” had me less than totally enthusiastic for a short time, Thomas R. Smith certainly snatched me back with the final two sections of The Foot of the Rainbow. “Villagers,” the third movement, is mostly a pretty dark view of us and our fellow earth-dwellers:

                     Many people salvage bricks
                     from their childhood homes,
                    They nail the old framed
                    prejudices above the fireplace,  

the poet reminds us in “A Homemade World” and goes on to note in subsequent poems that we . . . keep our holy book in a box of darkness . . . and asks . . . How are we to live so, without sun? Could we be over now, the country itself hurling like an unmanned drone?  He tells us . . . an immense-winged blackness breaks over the path . . .

Just when the reader might assume that Smith feels all is lost, he titles the final section “There is Still Time”, and presents what I feel are some of the strongest pieces in the book, in a sort of East meets (mid)West voice that I, for one, find quite satisfying. Things are looking up, as is Smith, literally; stretched out on a blanket on the hood of his car, he watches the Perseids meteor shower:
            What a bargain,
            in exchange for a little more sleep I won’t miss
            when I’m dead, meeting these fiery
            travelers who give everything to touch our sky.

As he approaches the finale, he observes that

dawn to summer dusk
seeds of living
fire into the world

and wonders How can the cold ground keep from singing?  How indeed, can the ground not sing, with this poet’s feet planted so firmly upon it, his head in rainbows?  If you read that previous sentence as a ringing endorsement of this book, so be it.

Ralph Murre is a recovering Wisconsin farm boy who has taken to poetry instead of plowing, since the pay rate is about the same, and the females involved tend to be human rather than Holstein.  His books to date are Crude Red Boat (Cross+Roads Press) and Psalms (Little Eagle Press).  He also admits to occasional blogging at the Arem Arvinson Log.