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.
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
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:
no longer here,
yet not completely gone.
In her poem “Family Ghosts,” Smith makes clear her calling and intent:
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:
- Review by Luanne Castle
- Review by Elizabeth Gauffreau (In her review, Liz includes a wonderful video of Smith’s river photographs)
- Interview with Curtis 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!
Categories: Book Review
Marie A Bailey
Writer, blogger, knitter, cat lover, and introvert.