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Lit Talk

Calling the Dusk Home: Cody Smith’s Delta Summers

Shawna Caro

            Nature is an inexhaustible subject in poetry. Cody Smith, Louisiana native, understands this principle well. In his new chapbook Delta Summers, Smith is heir to a certain poetic tradition for his multifaceted exploration of the South. Poems here bring to mind the quiet pastoral musings of William Stafford and Ted Kooser, but also the sharp-eyed deprecations and pragmatism of Richard Hugo. “Elegy for Delta Summers,” the opening poem, blends these complementary impulses. Smith’s careful observations ring with wistfulness: “There’s a moment in a field when dusk squats low over the hickory and loblolly, / over turnrows and rusted tillers and tractors and hoes, when the cicadas lurch / their lives out into air…” Like Stafford, here Smith urges receptivity to the present moment. “Hold your hands out to this,” he says, because “besides you, they’re all that’s coming back.”

            Much of Delta Summers functions as an elegy, as in “After the Flood: Baton Rouge, 2016.” The narrator notes those he sees wandering the aftermath of this so-called Thousand-Year Flood. “There’s little girls in their / fathers’ Department of Transportation / slickers that drag in the water / at their knees.” Rebirth seems possible but is tinged with danger: “The pond rises / like Lazarus,” the speaker observes. “Fathers kill the power / from their breaker boxes, walk outside / and plant bags of sand like hedge bushes.” After this flood, which defined Baton Rouge for months afterward, recovery seemed an uphill battle, and Smith captures that feeling of despondency well.

            Not all is desperation and hardship, however. In “Hurricane Parties,” Smith’s narrator sees the community bonds that strengthen when danger approaches. Events are surreal here, and powerful: “The wind turns the table umbrella inside-out, whis- / tles through the lattice of porch furniture. The power dies. Candles and lanterns / wander houses, flames tonguing faces sepia.” This dark side of nature provides a haunting atmosphere, and Smith literalizes the difference in his poetic form. This poem, like some others in this chapbook, is a prose poem, and the lines fill the page completely like a gale. Just as sharp as the slender stanzated poetry here, this variation in form lends freshness to Delta Summers.

            Many poems center on the narrator’s family—especially his father and grandfather. He learns little secrets early, as in “Picking Up Cans,” which begins with a conversation between the narrator and his grandfather:

           When granddaddy’s hands still worked,
           they shelled bushels of peas.

           I’d ask him, why not drive them
           up to W.G.’s place and run
           them through a machine?

                                                There’s no rhythm in it, son.

This poem yields the mentality of the grandfather—always keen to stay in the flow, rhythm the all-important calibrator of his life.

            The narrator worries that the grandfather may not be as long-lived as his ideology, as in his poem based after Hugo, entitled “Up and Over the Mountain”: “Where does it all go, Dick? All this leaving. / All this returning upstream to something no longer yours.” The speaker confides, “Sometimes I don’t answer my grandmother’s calls / for days, afraid it’s to tell me to buy a belt / and black shirt and plane ticket.”

            There are other, literal elegies here, such as to a family tractor passed down from the great-grandfather

            To my grandfather who gave it hell
            These last fifty years

            Yelling, you bastard,
            I don’t give a good goddamn
            if you ever turn over again
. (“Elegy for the Family Tractor”)

In all these moments, Smith’s narrator is meticulous in his detail, noting tobacco spit cups, sparkplugs and “cams oiled down,” and his own father, whose caring hands were also “hard enough to smooth / a hoe handle like sandpaper” (“Going Slow”).

            The speaker’s veneration of nature reemerges toward the chapbook’s end in “Wreckage,” where he recoils from hunting because he doesn’t wish to hurt other creatures.  Here too the details are vivid: the “ring in my ears / that lasted for days, // the unforgivable act / of winging a duck” that stays with him for years until it surfaces again on the page. This love for nature serves Cody Smith well throughout Delta Summers, a chapbook full with both paeans to the past and anticipations of sunrises to come.

            Readers can purchase Delta Summers from Cody Smith or from Yellow Flag Press. Doing so is an excellent and worthy investment. 

Smith, Cody. Delta Summers. (Yellow Flag Press, 2017. 28 pages, paperback: $8.00.)

The review of Delta Summers was written by Tyler Robert Sheldon, Tin Lunchbox contributor and published poet.