Hank by Abraham Smith
(Action Books, Notre Dame, IN, 2010)
Abraham Smith’s second collection, Hank, is a rapid, careening rant. It is the poetic equivalent of an old west bar brawl—of an outlaw ascending the pile of overturned furniture to speak stark tales from his tender heart. Or, cast in a slightly different light, Hank is a corrupt preacher’s manic thoughts—not the preacher pounding out hellfire in his shack of a church, but his Sunday evening reflection on all that harsh oration. I know I’m mixing figures and metaphors here. It is difficult not to when attempting to distill Abraham Smith’s poetry into its driving components. See: there I just wrote “driving” when “central” would have normally sufficed. The components are “driving” because Hank is all about momentum, accumulated by its unpunctuated syntax and the energy of wordplay and vivid images of man in woe and fury and the creatures that contribute to that mood.
As the book is effectively one long poem broken into eleven sections, the collection builds its momentum in its structure as one long, continuous poem that is broken up occasionally by a bit of blank page followed on the next by “($(%^U&” or “!+#*”—yes, these are actual titles of the sections, though it is misleading to think of them as such. They don’t perform the function that titles normally do in a book of poems, which is to encapsulate the page or pages following it under its umbrella, distinguishing the poems as separate individual units (which hold true even if the poems have thematic or linguistic elements that resonate throughout a number of poems in a collection). For Hank, it is much closer to the mark to think of the breaks and cartoon-censored curses as the speaker clearing his throat, taking a swig from his flask, shifting gears into another fluid episode from the continual story he’s telling and, with a swear addressed to no one in particular, diving into it.
In reading Hank, I’m reminded of Frank Stanford’s epic The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Both poems are streams of unpunctuated, southern-inflected consciousnesses. The main point of division between the interests of each poet is that Hank resists the narrative qualities of Battlefield. Whereas Stanford anchored in the wild imaginings and musings of its young protagonist in the picaresque, Smith’s movements are largely tangential and based on the possibilities of voice and language. Wordplay, puns, and adaptations of clichés, colloquialisms, and even advertising slogans are the forces that steer Smith’s attention into a series of narrower tangents until the original impetus is all but abandoned, so far the poem has digressed from its seed idea in just a page of a handful of lines. The language play never turns solipsistic—it always is present to an idea outside of itself, and idea that follows from the preceding line in some observable way (as either its logical, temporal, or sonic progeny). Yet in following this path, honed in as it is to the individual stones, it becomes just as difficult to know where the path began as it is to see where it leads to, which places the reader in a state of dislocation. Marveling at the features of wordplay and voice as the lines stream past can become tedious if there is no route back into the larger context of the poem.
Perhaps Hank Williams Sr., could provide a route of contextualization of the smaller, moment-by-moment bits to the larger context of the poem. Hank is, after all, set up to be the larger context: his name, monosyllabic and direct, is the title, and his monochromatic blue face adorns the cover, shooting thin laser beams out of blank eyes to the sturdy, yellow block letters of HANK. The cover, designed by Andrew Shuta, is very well-suited to the collection: I saw the cover image online before ever reading a poem by Abraham Smith, and when I took my first peek into Hank, it was quickly apparent that the cover image was able to capture the mood of the poem. However, despite Hank’s prominent presence surrounding the book, he feels only vaguely present in it. I should note that my familiarity with Hank Williams’ biography is slim, so there are probably dozens of references to the man that a Hank Sr. follower would easily recognize. This may partially explain why my understanding of the work resists coherence into a unified whole—but I doubt that it is the only reason. For an example of why, take these lines from rather early in the book:
sea glass is sea glass cuz it’s always going in the sun freckled
hands of the sifters and darners
anybody always gone gets that salt fizzed feel to them
in the hands of the road you are a nameless thing
the invention of the hard road marks the end of the individual
we are sandman pounding energy drinks
and sandy with the house full of heart shape mirrors
teens are teens because they specialize in getting haunted
I wasn’t sure where to begin or where to end the quotation, for in this passage, like most passages throughout, each line feeds into the next while remaining disparate enough to make any spot a point of union or departure. On the note of Hank Williams’ presence in the poem, he certainly could be in these lines, but if this section appeared in a poem that was titled anything else, I don’t believe they would lose any of their potency, nor any of their mystery. In comparing two of the declarative statements— “sea glass is sea glass cuz it’s always going in the sun freckled” and “the invention of the hard road marks the end of the individual”—neither of the statements have a necessary connection to Hank Williams. The sea glass line is in keeping with the tone of the surrounding lines and has its meaning partially embedded in the context, though it indicates a move away from context and into independent statement that is fully realized a few lines later with the “invention of the hard road marks the end of the individual,” a claim that marks a distinct separation from the prominent discourse. It could just as well appear in an academic text as it could in this poem, a trait that is by no means rare for contemporary poetry but which is rare for Hank, with its unruly and energetic colloquialisms and cowboy-speak.
There are spots where Hank’s presence in the book rises above the tangle of associations into a clear and direct mention, as is the case at the beginning of the section entitled “!+#*”:
fred rose and hank williams in a writer’s room
and ain’t nobody ever
has known what
went on behind
that leaden handle door
the great wide door
that whipping walloper
this is already a great fat lie
for the door was a papery thing
it was one of those
after the war doors
the south after the war doors
it was a door that apologized
for itself when you shut it
This is perhaps the best example for demonstrating the interplay between the competing interests in the poem. On the one hand, there is Hank Williams, the muse of the work, its generative figure; on the other is the wild side of Smith that snatches an idea or a linguistic tic and gives it a nice, hard kick, then runs chasing after it to kick and chase again. There is that strain of childlike delight in process throughout Hank, and though in the above lines there are fewer gems than in most other fourteen line chunks of the poem, it demonstrates this emphasis on process and how it leads to the vivid personification of “it was a door that apologized / for itself when you shut it.” I think these terms—muse and process—are essential to Hank. Hank Williams is important in the work as its muse because, as a cursing and freewheeling mythologized figure, he initiates the process of creation like any good muse. Abraham Smith’s testament to Hank Williams is not not a testament to Hank—rather, it is a testament to poetry itself, rightfully honoring the muse that urged it into being, since “every song bone poem was / once a sung sun reading / how and where to howl / or hum along by the light / by the light by the light,” and Hank is sung in the light of Hank’s song even if it’s only playing on a jukebox in the bar that Abraham Smith overhears while hustling past.
Logan Fry lives in Austin, Texas, where he is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas. His poetry has most recently appeared in elimae.