Buzzed Books #64 by Amy Watkins
Abraham Smith’s Destruction of Man
It’s been said that writers who try to appeal to everyone are likely to appeal to no one. This is not a problem Abraham Smith needs to fear, and I mean that as a compliment. Smith’s Destruction of Man(Third Man Books, 2018), a decidedly unromantic take on the life of American farmers, is not for everyone. It’s a messy, sprawling, unconventional book that uses unpoetic language and breaks every rule your English teachers ever taught you. Some poetry readers will hate this book for all the reasons that many others will love it.
The book uses no capitalization, punctuation, or breaks between poems within a section, unless we’re meant to consider each section one poem, which is possible, but not really clear. At first glance, this makes the sections look like long stream of consciousness poems, but they’re not. Segments or strophes are divided by rows of slashes. Sometimes a single line is set apart this way. What looks like stream of consciousness is more like a series of small observations, rants, or imaginings strung together. If we are following the poet’s consciousness, it’s circling more than streaming. Since we’re talking about farming, we might imagine these moments of reflection or observation happening in the few minutes between chores or in the pause at the end of a field row.
Punctuation and capitalization aren’t the only conventions Smith ignores. He verbs nouns with abandon and uses text spellings for words that can be pronounced phonetically (u, yr, tho, etc.). I’m not persuaded that all these choices are made to honor some grand design, but I admire the audacity and the utter refusal to make any part of this book pastoral or idyllic. Farm life is hard, goddamnit. Why should poems about it be easy?
Destruction of Man is released by the book imprint of a small record label. I’m inclined to say that the book has a musical sensibility, but I’m afraid you will misunderstand me and imagine something lyrical. The poems are rhythmically satisfying, but the rhythm is as unconventional as everything else here. It feels a little jerky until Smith pairs rhyming words or runs through a string of similar-sounding words, giving the poem a sudden burst of speed, like a canoe bumping along in shallow water surging forward for a second when it gets a wave under it. It’s easy to get caught up in the movement of the poem and forget the words entirely, a strange thing for a poetry book, but not so strange for a certain kind of song.
You might hate this book. It’s messy. It’s unconventional. It adamantly refuses to be pretty. If you’re the right kind of reader, though, those might be your best reasons for loving it.
Pair with: a brass monkey. Drink a 40 (or 32, if you’re in Florida) of malt liquor to the top of the label then refill the bottle with orange juice. You can think of it as a dirtbag shandy, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
Amy Watkins (Episodes 124, 161, 164, 192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.