Book Review

River Ghosts by Merril D. Smith #bookreview #poetry

I always feel apprehensive when reviewing poetry, maybe more so than when I’m writing the poetry myself. Some time ago, I took an online writing course, and the instructor mentioned in passing that she liked writing poetry because you didn’t need to explain poetry like you would explain a story or an essay. While that idea frees me to write poetry, it definitely makes it more difficult to review poetry.

Poetry is like music, like art. You can admire the technique, the skill in putting words (or notes or paints) together in a pleasing way. But the poetry I’m attracted to does more than please me. It lifts me out of myself and sets me to ponder ideas and feelings I either hadn’t considered or had been afraid to acknowledge. So ends my long introduction to this review of Merril D. Smith’s book, River Ghosts.

Cover art by Jay Smith

But before I begin my review: Just look at that cover! River Ghosts is published by Nightingale & Sparrow, and what a gorgeous book to hold in my hands. When I first saw the cover on Smith’s blog, I knew I had to have a printed copy. I have not been disappointed. In fact, when I wasn’t reading Smith’s lovely poetry, I had her book displayed on a bookshelf so I could enjoy seeing the cover.

The first poem in this collection–“River Ghosts”–sets up the reader for a journey into the past and present, into if and when, with “echoes / over the river.” The reader is invited to “Observe again.” but also to “Now solve the problem.” And that’s just in the first two poems. Smith might not intend for the reader to “solve the problem” presented in all the poems, but she definitely intends (in my humble opinion) for the reader to observe again and again, whether she is observing “a train to hell,” a first love or dark matter. Like a river, these poems meander–at turns edging toward grief (“our mother stopped eating before she died, / now I hear her ghost-laugh in my dreams”), then sisterly fun (“we rubbed the laughing Buddha’s belly for good luck”), but always listing toward the mysteries of the universe, encompassing life and death:

Once some brilliant star breathed time
in the after-wake of explosion and danced across a universe
exploring eternity

The poems were compiled after Smith’s mother died of COVID-19 in April 2020, and so a number of the poems feature her mother in her youth and old age. She (and others long-deceased) also features as a ghost; not a scary, haunted ghost, but:

Not living,
no longer here,
yet not completely gone.

In her poem “Family Ghosts,” Smith makes clear her calling and intent:

Subsisting, existing
their ghost voices sing to me
I hear them
I feel them–ancestors calling me,
this is what we do, generate, create the songs of our hearts forever.

These are poems I will be turning to often as I seek comfort when my own family members become “not living, / no longer here.” I will find comfort in knowing that they are “not completely gone.” Smith demonstrates how a writer could (and, perhaps, should) allow ancestors to speak through her, echoing through the years, so we always remember not just when but if.

River Ghosts is available on Amazon at this link.

Here are links to two more reviews of River Ghosts as well as an interview with Merril D. Smith:

And if you’re not already a reader of Smith’s blog Yesterday and today: Merril’s historical musings, then please visit her here and sign up.

Thank you for reading!

Busy bee on my lavender Penta.

24 thoughts on “River Ghosts by Merril D. Smith #bookreview #poetry

  1. Beautifully done, Marie! So funny – I wrote my own review on Goodreads for this fantabulously wonderful book of poetry. I didn’t do it the justice you just did though. sigh… If I hadn’t read it, I would definitely want to after reading this! And I know that I will be returning to it again and again.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I usually keep it rather light, making sure I don’t reveal plots and stuff. Of course, for a poetry book, that doesn’t really apply, does it? LOL.


  2. Oh, Marie! What a wonderful, lovely surprise this is! I can’t thank you enough for your thoughtful and well-written review. I’m overwhelmed! And so pleased that my words touched you so. I’m also pleased that you like the cover so much. My older child designed the art, and I really love it. Thank you, too, for including the links for the book, reviews, and interview. I appreciate this review on your blog very much! 💙

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Merril, I’m so glad you like the review. I was quite nervous about it. In fact, one reason why I included links to Liz and Luanne’s reviews is because I wasn’t sure about my own … lol. Yes, your words deeply touched me. A cousin of mine died recently. I wasn’t close to her, but we had a particular connection so I felt very sad about her death. Your poems helped me with that.


  3. This is an excellent review of Merril’s book! A huge congratulations to her!! Thank you for including a link to my review. (I’m glad I’m not the only person who is apprehensive when approaching a review of poetry. I’m always afraid I won’t articulare clearly enough why I think other readers would enjoy it, too.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely review! This is so nicely done. I like that you highlight the cover of the book. When I was a little girl at the book fair, I was forever falling in love with the books via the covers. Often, the cover did not disappoint! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Linda! Indeed, book covers are so important, especially these days when people can just download stock photos. It definitely adds to the intrinsic value of a book when the cover is artfully done.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Merril is a gifted writer. I enjoy her blog immensely.
    I bought a copy (PDF) and look forward to reading it.

    This is a fab review of Merril’s book. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Big congrats to Merril (and condolences on your loss, Merril). What a lovely review. Poetry has a beautiful way of going deep in such a comforting way. Thank you for featuring this book, Marie.

    Liked by 1 person

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