Review of Bruce Smith’s Devotions

By Megan Turner
University of Chicago Press, 2011, 104 Pages, $18.00

Bruce Smith’s Devotions take place in the ordinary. His poems are found in the streets of New York, Paris, and sometimes under the Red Roof Inn. Yet, Smith’s poems are not specific to these places. In fact, walking the garment district or taking a bus ride to Utica, one would not find Smith’s meditations. They are somehow unrecognizable.

These are indeed meditations of a much less visible world. They are often saddened by loss. In his “Devotion: Dub,” he writes, “the people I knew/died with lipsticks in their purses and lottery tickets in their pockets.” In his beautifully written, “J’s Dream,” he writes:

        The plane ahead of you got tiny, a tiny red dot
        then a spark like from an emery wheel just a single flit
        and then you’re on the ground where everything was quiet

This is not a poem one necessarily seeks to understand. As Smith writes, it is “about the rules for distance and difficult love.” Yet, Smith’s poems do not linger in sadness. These are true meditations that often marvel at both the natural and mechanical world. It seems there might not be time or space to devote to a dress, a guitar, or soup, but for Smith this is certainly not true. In fact, his poems often look at the world with wondrous eyes.

His “Devotion: Infant Joy,” seems written from the mind of an infant, and although it is freshly rendered, the poem does not seem unusual for Smith, who often seems to write from the perspective of infant joy. “Devotion: The Game” is about a real love. He writes:

        I’m always a boy
        as I sit or stand in the shouting place and breathe the doses of men—
        smoke and malt—as the night comes down in the exact pattern
        of a diamond

There are devotions to nature and insects as well. But, to say these poems are about nature and insects is to simplify them. The poems meditate on these subjects but do not take away from the devotion. They are the starting point for Smith’s thoughts, his perspective of a world that is often minute. His poem, “Devotion: Crows,” for example, shows the reader something of what the crow embodies:

        At the end of the song, a sadness, a sexual sadness: and you forgot
        you were in a song, as good songs make you do when they cover up
        your overheated body in a cape and you shrug it off and come back
        to sing again because you forgot the song doesn’t end like you forgot.

This same poem ends with the final line: “By their one word they have abducted us and sit / in the crotch of the trees rasping and jittering.” This one image, startling and fantastic, does much of what Smith’s poems do as they bring the reader to the “crotch” of a tree, watching and waiting for the next image Smith encounters.

If there is one thing to say about Smith’s Devotions, it is that they are not of one matter. They are a true devotion; they send out a chorus of songs, and for the reader it is best to be lost in them and then resurface somewhere unexpected. Although the poems do not only encompass joy, the resounding noise is of respect and love for what the world has to offer. Some of his final devotions are Smith’s best. His poem “Devotion: Roman” includes parenthetical notes, as many of his poems do, but in this devotion, the parentheses offer options. “In dream the mother says, Go outside until I (die, fix dinner),” he writes. The poem continues on with these parenthetical options:

        I go out into the village where I am the prodigy
        of chalk on sidewalk before rain (love song, noir). In steel blue shadow
        or copper sun, at the edge of shallow pools from the scourings

Bruce Smith is clearly a master of his art, letting the ordinary become unusual and providing room for meditation. His poems, often lonely, are also a great devotion to life—of which, there is certainly no short supply here.


Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, Megan Turner grew up in Harrogate, England and Columbia, Maryland. She has a B.A. from Elon University and an M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her work has been published in the Rio Grande Review and Witness.

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