Lynn Strongin – Jordan Smith – Mystic in red flannel shirt

Lynn Strongin LE P&W Oct 2022

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Jordan smith: Mystic in red flannel shirt, poems by Lynn Strongin.

Thanks to Penelope Weiss who gave this essay her caring reading and copy-editing.

Jordan Smith PortraitIntroduction

I see a tall lanky figure striding the hills of Upstate New York. With the thoughtfulness of a Puritan mind making music with the prose of a poet, Jordan Smith catches the eye because his red flannel shirt, that soft cotton, is like a lit spark against the Protestant grey hills. Americana to the grain the work, this poet who wishes to play fiddle with both Thomas Hardy and John Clare: two dark figures touching upon madness: that peculiar poetically rich state of soul and mind: the schizophrenic and the mystic have been compared. Carl Carmer’s book “Listen for a Lonesome Drum” about his travels upstate in the 1920’s has some good discussion about the religious impulse in this landscape.

Smith’s formal music begins with “An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns” and continues with his favorite instrument, the folk music fiddle; through his more than half a dozen books of poems music sounds and resounds. Often in classic iambic pentameter, these are hymns which build, orchestral, instrumentally and at time chorally. The poet told me “Sometimes rather than often, lots of syllabics occur in my first book.”

If he was not a lover of Milton at one point or another I would be surprised. He is master of the long Miltonic line, often iambic.

Smith’s architecture is rough-hewn. “Weathered …cut stone” and “roofline harsh” as well as “weathercocks rusting” carry out the opening description of something beyond simple description. The “iron pickets” are “darkening.” So is life itself with a “door bolted, its paint etched away” and even the shutters bear out “a patterned, elaborated journal of weathering. . .”

The Body of the Poems: Old Hymns & John Clare

The hymn which culminates in Jordan Smith’s work on John Clare was written late in his career. Here music becomes orchestral, symphonic. Hallucinatory light is refined. Smith’s adjectives are consistently extra-ordinary, jarring: the paint on doors is not usually “etched away.” And shutters are not patterned with a “journal of weathering. . .”

Clare’s life, a series of almost impossible negotiations between ignorance and knowledge, gift and condescension, poetry and privilege, appetite and refinement, seemed to me to raise issues that have hardly gone away: class, liberty, ecological responsibility, the rights of imagination and the rights of property. The intent of the poems is to present moments from that life at a high pitch of tension and to consider how little has changed,” writes Smith.

These poems are a fantasia on the works of John Clare. Smith IS not as magnetized, deeply drawn by as repulsed by the horror of being insane: but his is an amazement with compassion, indeed pity for this state of mind: think of Van Gogh, of Virginia Woolf.

The footpath, past locks and stocks and boundary stones,
Left him a bastard’s felicity, his turn for speech
And flattery, deft wit, dab hand with grey or roan
Fillies, left him, in lieu of other teaching
Such pleasures. His grandson, too. That drowsy boy
Would learn to make an empire of his joy,

Strong, one syllable Anglo-Saxon words “Locks and stocks” make the opening here powerful, yet there is tenderness in the alliterative line, “deft wit, dab hand with grey or roan.” Clare was a driven haunted man, his demons. Although pathologically shy about his work here is what Clare can be imagined to have done:

He wrote on scraps of paper his mother craved
For her own purposes, tedious, domestic,
Practical. He hid his drafts away;
Practice in penmanship or arithmetic,
He’d lie straight-faced if any such were found.
He spoke one once. He claimed it . . .

And that flat, green light, the same, the same
As the frozen pond and river. All
The roads snow covered, all the shame
Of appetite reduced to a hunter’s call,
A long-tailed bird, a prayer for prey
From scarcity. A winter’s day.

All poetry I believe tends toward a homecoming. The homeline in the excerpt below is simply stated: emphasized in the words “slowly” and “splendor.” Going home he looks upon as “good in any weather.”

I want
To drive slowly through
That splendor home.
(p. 35) Three Grange Halls

While Jordan Smith is not what I would call an ecstatic poet he voices elation. Nor can he be placed in the confessional school. Is he a minimalist? No, not quite: he pares earthly life down but in long breaths which take in the full sweep. He is a formalist, a modern, a brilliant observer of the daily scene. And he internalizes the visual, the familiar. Slowly unspooling revelation seems to be Jordan Smith’s forte, most often in long musical lines. His is an earthy yet spiritual take on existence.

Hymns is also, for me, a deeply spiritual, if not religious, book. While the terms ecstasy and apostasy are not appropriate, the slow exultation that comes of massing moving details—such as in “An Exaltation of Larks” moves like a shuttle thru the poems in this first book, weaving in and out.

No one, furthermore, exists to do what the windows have done: “taken on the steely air of rain” and brambles, threateningly, have “moved closer.” Small jets of gas lamps, grain of oak stair steps, yellowed invitation on the mantel are also among the numbered things remembered but near to oblivion, one step far from forgotten.

It is that mystic space “One step from forgotten” that Jordan Smith is haunted, mesmerized and enchanted by and which all is summed up in the old hymns.

If music is his primary, preoccupation, I would say memory is his second: the deep and delicate gift for remembering.

So if the landscaped world is a great weight upon the eyeball, that of memory, music, and later art, particularly that of painter Walter Hatke, are Smith’s passports if not to God, to spirituality. As with Simone Weill, it is impossible to separate his music from his spirituality. Opening “The Morning Dew” in For Appearances, “What I envy tonight is the ecstatic life.” This does not mean he yearns to be a monk but yearns for a life ‘Pared to simplicity, pared / Almost to no nothing, or to a ritual /Enacted, like a good habit:? From this he moves to his music, “The violin tucked in its case”

The lovely use of vernacular and formal is evident in this line front “The Morning Dew” “It’s like cobby workmanship on a house.” This workmanship comes with the sense “Something sacred is meant to happen there.”

So I look round to “something sacred” and an emotion deeper: Smith’s late poems for John Clare deal with madness. This is reminiscent of an earlier poem in which he describes in “Tristan” the sea’s “Continual / Music of loss” while in “Local Color” he speaks of the need for unveiling the mystery “the smoke screen of things.” Smith’s finest work portrays that smoke screen, pervasive but understated. He is reminiscent of Emerson who in “Nature on the “Splendid labyrinth of our own perceptions” opens when the “noble doubt” of solipsism isn’t grounded in the possibility of the transcendental.

The Names of Things Leaving: Good Strong Oak Remains

But if the world ultimately or along the way breaks its promise, the soul, Emerson’s “oversoul” or “Transparent eyeball” keeps its trust with life most especially in music. There is, however, the later darker statement which comes in a later collection, opening The Names of Things are Leaving:

“In the years before my bereavements (not the obvious ones). . . I found the names of things were leaving me. Those small, crested winter birds, gray / And smudgy’

Mystically, by a leap of poetic imagination, names become “winter birds” and they must be the color as well as “smudgy” What leaves is unnamable. It is not the poet’s “hands picking up the pen nor . . spare hopeful / Legacy of words”. Then what was it? He speaks of “the neurons’ little lapses and deaths, / What would always happen” it is the names above all names that (one) “could not bear to lose.”

This is a dirge-like music, because it still scans at the very least an elegy for the beloved: function the mysterious way “a child’s equation. Let s equal, or let y as well.” There is the holiness of the work table. Then we move forward to ‘A Young Person’s Guide to Wagner’s Ring” “From the living room, there’s music / Low-pitched and hardly separable form the light’. Near the end of the poem we read that “Great words are great betrayals.” There / Is a roughness in the back of the throat, and there, right there, is hope.”

Hope, that essential emotion of faith is present. That, Hope, is the tryst unbroken. Almost always. John Drury wrote “Smith’s voice has the magnetic authority of a patient crafty story teller and the liveliness of a musician reinventing the old tunes. . .goes on orchestrated in irrational splendor.” He combines this splendor with the “Integrity of American Oak.  Karen Swenson writes “Music always draws you into the dance, a trance. “

Looking at the body of Smith’s poetry, chronologically, music and art deepens his historical poetry from his first book, Hymns which creates a massive music in a page-length poem, a hymn itself.  “For Dulcimer & Doubled Voice” states that “Because the sadness of the mode rests / in an empty singing between the string,” a poem which exalts the string instrument ‘”split heart / of cherry: “ a few lines further on “whorls slipping away in quiet water.” Both are reflections of quiet emotion.

I want to take a backward glance:

The longest poems are in the first book. Part Two of Hymns is three long letters. Here the urgency of tone, and vivid language show Jordan Smith as dramatist. They are “A Portrait by several Hands Sir William Johnson Baronet who was Superintendent of Indian Affairs (1715-1774).

These are long poems, epistolary and like that lost art, letter writing, formal in style. The opening one is entirely set in quatrains and runs twenty-two pages. Long historical addresses, in the form of letters often, and the emphasis on music move us forward into fresh insights about older arts. Formal, rural and historical these poems will surely take their place in the canon of millennial and post 20th century American poetry.

The Northeast is always his geography, aside from his vivid descriptions, when writing of John Clare, of England. “(The nuts and bolts of any small town). (“Schuylerville” Three Grange Halls.) He makes glancing reference to Edward Hopper, “It could be a Hopper scene,” but is lovelier. (Ibid.) Getting into the meat of Smith’s poems is still, for me, always a kind of angel-meat. “The problem is solved / O how to feel in the face of beauty.” (Ibid.) Clare’s experience of enclosure—the common land becoming private—is part of this, the openness of the New York countryside vanishing into development; if it wasn’t common land before, it was at least available to the eye.

Always life lived with the leisure that opens the inner eye: “The faded mural of the Adirondacks / On the backdrop” compel the eye. But solving the problem is necessary before the poet leaves, the problem of beauty “So engrossed in the varieties / Of its own passing” (Ibid.) Always, at the end of a poem, or a visionary day, he will “nod thanks.” (ibid.).

I could compile list of landscapes alone. Like all visionaries, Jordan Smith figures as a rustic visionary: he wants “to be dazzled by the glare / Of what’s offered without / explanation.” (Ibid.) The explanation would spoil but it is a slow driving “through / That splendor, home” which resonates and rests with us, leaving us the final impression of a mystic in red flannel shirt, listening for the land’s own music, pressing closer, and closer “At least a dozen good barns landscape / That looks good in any weather.” (Ibid.)

Smith points up in a epigraph to the final poem in Three Grange Halls, “Fiddleheads,” the musician’s traditional body is work is “a vital whole pieces together like a patchwork quilt out of many discrete shreds. That “roughness in the back of the throat,” that driving “slowly through splendor.” Becomes a hymn, if unsung, heard in the space between sleeping and waking: Hymn is the word which recurs most often in Jordan Smith’s poems. I go to my dictionary. From the Greek, Hellenistic, used as a noun this is a hymn to Apollo. Synonyms are canticle, psalm, carol. In all cases, it is a music of praise. For Smith, it is not praise to a God, or gods but for the vari-textured emotions of living hitting him in the face with the effect of brilliance: brilliance is in a place of its own: it dazzles.*

It is night: sky is darkening; Protestant severity touched the Eastern hills. That red spark describing the outline, on the horizon, of eastern woods, eastern hills if the poet, Jordan, in red flannel shirt: like Whitman in love with the world around him, like Wallace Stevens, a lover of the longer line, mainly iambic, the create an engraving  crafted with a vitality, detail, ruggedness and lyricism peculiar to the American voice. And, as in these lines in praise of jazz improviser Charles Lloyd, a presence found everywhere and in spite of everything:

And at Big Sur, an old man with a horn under his arm has walked a little further into the scrub where the trail dodges back from the cliff.

Considering that long paradox of infinite division. Who would have thought the broken might contrive such beauty.

Who would have thought the saxophone might be one voice of god?

© Lynn Strongin

Lynn Strongin is a Pulitzer Prize nominee in poetry. A recipient of a National Endowment Creative Writing Grant, nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes, Lynn Born in NYC at the end of the dirty thirties, she grew up in an artistic Jewish home in New York during the war. Earliest studies were in musical composition as a child and at The Manhattan School of Music. Took a BA at Hunter college, MA at Stanford University as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow.

Lived in Berkeley during the vibrant sixties where she worked for Denise Levertov and took part in many peace demonstrations. Poems in forty anthologies, fifty journals; Poetry, New York Quarterly. Forthcoming work in Poetry Flash and Otoliths. Canada is her second home. The late Hugh Fox said Strongin is the “most exciting poet writing today.’ Danielle Ofri wrote to her, “you tear the veil off that mysterious disease polio.” Strongin’s work has been translated into French and Italian. Her forthcoming book is THE SWEETNESS OF EDNA.

2 Replies to “Lynn Strongin – Jordan Smith – Mystic in red flannel shirt”

  1. Lynn was my creative writing teacher in 1972 in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico. She encouraged me in so many ways . My name is Sandi Miller. She recommended I contribute to Manroot ( possibly she may remember me) I moved to Tucson and lost touch but would love to drop her an email to say Thanks. I still have her copy of The Dwarf Cycle. Please give her my appreciation!

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