Reading My Father's Book, by Steven Ross Smith (Wolsak & Wynn, 84 pages, $12 paper), begins as a dream, "from somewhere else/beneath knowing." In the dream the poet's father shows him a book and the poet takes a journey through that book, into "the branch and root of things", as he writes his way through this, his fifth collection.
The journey starts in Montana, where his father was born in 1920, and ends, in the last poem of the book, with an acute awareness of the poet's own sonless state. The historical parts of the book are predictable enough-my father was born, I was born, my father and I interacted-but it is seven Body poems that form the backbone of the collection and give it a raw physical energy. That energy may be a ricochet of Smith's work, over the course of ten years, in the sound and performance ensemble Owen Sound. When you're on stage in front of a large and boisterous audience, you cannot retreat into abstractions.
"[M]y body bears a surbody i know" from Body 1 sets up the exploration for us: Smith is going to read his own body made in the image of his father-an undertaking that feminists embarked on years ago.
The Body poems are stowed throughout the book like buried treasure, each one developing different themes: work, power, sex, touching, female, and father. Labels cannot give you all the flavour.
From Body 2: "wagging/awkward and/exposed."
And the flip side (the feminine), from Body 6: "it is not done to you/is inside you/buried comes rarely forward."
From Body 4: "your intricate thought, mine/your thinning hair, mine/your aches, mine."
This is not to say that everything else in the book falls short of the mark. There are some bright moments, for example in "Net" and "He took good care of his brushes". However, it is the poignancy of the rest of the poems that weakens them, whereas the Body poems are fearless.
Susan L. Helwig