The first time I heard Abraham Smith read I was shot back in time. I pictured me, a scraggly beat-girl, hearing Burroughs and thinking Whitman while rocking back and forth to a new sort of preacher’s sermon. Smith has a rolling rhythm come from deep in the backwoods of Ladysmith, Wisconsin that rocks a bit like a boat on the rough Mississippi heading for the West Village circa 1963. All this to say it felt, at the same time, familiar and utterly alien. In his new book, Whim Man Mammon just out by Action Books, Smith pounds out a rhythm with a boot heel and sits you down to listen to the man behind the pulpit. Although the title might suggest a book heavily steeped in the language school, Smith shakes off any sort of categorization by blending his singular narrative deep into song that harkens back to Woody Guthrie and those storytellers intrinsically interested in the mythmaking of American culture.

In his poem (the poems are listed by first line only), “HER AND I HAD BEEN IN THE VINEGAR,” Smith takes the reader on a journey of a man maddened by betrayal trying to find some sort of solace in the wreckage of worldly goods that seemingly do us no good when our mental states unwind and unravel.
Okay I tossed the phone
I am blaming 1981
through 1989
that night I came home
after watching her
soften another man’s
smoke stack bricks
none of it even half way
depraved raving
I needed a smacking kiss needed a not shot skunk
to talk to about how to walk bent and slug
needed a coat made of stickers
from store bought fruits
I did not know point of fact what knead dew
I say my chair my good old
antique not unkind chair
had long been kindling
since the preacher
had given his spare rocker
it was a straight back antique chair
it was not good for
balling up in call it crying lonesome
lightning monsoon eaves
okay I picked up my chair and
tuned into the sweet gum tress
best way to say it is have you seen
it’s a wonderful life when
jimmy stewart’s george bailey
realizes he’s totally fucked
did you know it was actually
over 90 degrees when they
filmed that flick had a hard time
keeping even fake snow I had that look
hard time with also a beetle a demented kid
had poured kerosene on for my eyes
I took of the chair and threw it against
the sweet gum trees I followed through
chuffing angry ground ivy poison ivy
all earth a chill flame old time scottish for
donning stiff old cold pants in the morning is chilblains
lord knows I had them ill no amen
raw itch filth monstrous I
launched the chair deeper
fell in a ravine little death legs
tickled my tomorrows
there was tart clay there were the atomic
lice of animals eyes I dragged
the chair at my hip kept slinging it
I carried it like it was wanted for
the million heisted the day
the last good deal went down
I heaved the chair
towards every tree from here to
part ways through georgia that’s the way
it felt in my mind the chair didn’t know
what to do the chair was fine because it was
old therefore a solid chair it didn’t have experience
it’s sort of like flipping your wig
on someone who’s had a wonderful life they don’t know
what you are they look at you like okay
a falling meteor made of an orphan a thin mint I mean
that’s the landless scythe because I was
working at the farm decent strong hands okay
I shotput the chair I lobbed it and it held
straddling a sweet gum it clung to the branches clung to the bark
part like it was making love to the tree and part like it was
an anorexic bear just sort of trying to get away
a lot sad I was a pity racy sight it was I couldn’t reach
to work the scene better a light rain set in
I waited for a deal of time under that sweet gum tree
waiting just waiting if see if maybe
the chair wanted to come back to me I took off my cap I made a sweet talk
to my chair in the tree but the chair didn’t budge
the chair was proud and pissed part like it was telling the tree psst
see that guy he’s no good part like it was waiting for the tree
to sit down and part like it was just that infernal tree sticking
its leggy tongues out at me I tell you that chair
didn’t come rain came boot hard old news heart char I was
my shoes my shoes stunk in the morning morse code for
creaking bucket my hank boots slipped
I kicked a coal caught a cadillac
pig pig sparrow
From the very first lines we are struck by the exposed voice of the speaker, an honesty that is both confession and a seeking of validation. With a stark rhythm at first, simple and unadorned, Smith welcomes us in and guides us to the pews. The voice that says, “Let me tell you something, just a simple something.” Once we’re set in and comfortable, the language begins to brave a bolder discourse. With sound-play that amps up the risk and deepens the grinding hootenanny of imagery, Smith builds a powerful monologue of man and nature, heart and hard times. Feral language fills the rural terrain of the mind with lines such as, “chuffing angry ground ivy poison ivy/ all earth a chill flame” and “that’s the landless scythe,” as we become accustomed to this new human dialect.
Pitting man against the natural world and man against himself, the poem is essentially an ode to what humans cannot grasp, the way we cannot tame the untamable earth (we amongst that unwieldy lot). The speaker hurls a chair into a tree, as if he might be able to fling himself back to his natural birth, start again. Then, he wants the chair back, but it won’t come (like the woman’s love unreturned), what’s done is done. Until at last, rain is what comes. No answer, no conclusion, only wet boots, a moving on, a clumsy flight.
Throughout the book songbirds, woods, dear good folk, working the land, heartbreak, and blossoming are mile markers as we travel the cultural landscape of Smith’s music. With his ability to unfold an extended metaphor with uncompromised skill and beauty as well as his gathering faith in the human spirit, Smith has created a book to cling to when a true good word is hard to come by.
As Smith says in CAROL, REMEMBER WHEN, “We groped to find the song/that could change everything, sharpen our point,/end war, at least kill a guy with a feather/and a noun, kill him into a better guy.” Here is that song.

Originally Published: April 7th, 2008

Ada Limón is the author of Lucky Wreck (2006), This Big Fake World (2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award. She earned an MFA from New York University, and is the recipient of...

  1. April 9, 2008

    Thanks for this interesting shout out. The Woodie Guthrie influence caught my attention. I'll have to check it out.

  2. April 11, 2008

    great review, he's an interesting guy, who happens to be my bro truth maybe told!!!! a job well done!!

  3. April 11, 2008

    His poetry is an unforgettable experience whether heard or read. I can't wait to read this book.