The poems in Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer surface and ripple the tongue before diving into the depths of the primal mind, where words lose their schools, abandon their beds, and hybridize with anything that swims. Anyone who has lived in rural America will recognize the syntax of conventional wisdom, but these poems are anything but conventional. The speaker stutters, rambles, trails off, and chatters, casting a spell that builds into blinding clarity. Each poem reads like a transmission (or “trans mish,” as the speaker says in “40”) from “dada dove country,” a country in which “snakes (are) dreaming of party streamers” and “sweet candy head orpheus” has “gone fishing for wings / with wings.”
“[E]at your language with your eyes,” writes Abraham Smith in “46.” If one extends the logic of this command, one might say, “Eat your speech with your ears,” and the eye and ear gnaw at each other throughout the collection. Rendering dialect in the poems, Smith often creates the sound of a spoken word by writing another actual word, which makes the line mean one thing when read aloud and something else when read as it is written. In “19,” a particularly poignant poem, he writes:
what kept me
from shooting myself
when i was ten
was going to the river bridge
fish like flags that’s all
all i ever had
fish like flags and i probably stolid
that from v woolf
with the current sometimes advancing on it
Here, the word “stolid,” when read aloud in context, would be taken to mean “stole,” but when read on the page, the definition of “stolid” also works because of the line break. Seeking some form of comfort, the speaker goes to the bridge, where he sees “fish like flags,” an experience that keeps him from shooting himself, so “and i probably stolid” indicates that he might have found the calm for which he was searching. However, when we get to “that from v woolf,” the spoken sense of the word applies. Breaking the line on “stolid” makes the word a bridge between the written and spoken word.
Bridges form a motif in the book. In “37,” Smith writes, “[B]ack on the bridge again / back to water’s rusts / and the stones’ russets,” and in “38,” he writes:
all my little stain water clear optimisms all this life long
lesson of pitted but whole
tshirt taking tasting red rust
sunset soft brand line
no that sun don’t flatline
that’s just the bridge under weather forever
While it’s clear that Smith is writing about a real bridge and a real river, it also seems that the speaker of these poems is standing on a bridge of words above a river of time. He wades into the river, where he feels “the tug of the waters against (his) ankles” and declares that “something like time is a rinsing thing,” but he returns to the bridge, which “rings / like a tooth ache” before settling into “the holy silence,” “from which to edge is to be born / into the river.” Silence, too, is a property of language. The speaker says, “[I] am the bridge.” The poet is a kind of bridge across which the words he has heard truck from the past into the present when he speaks, traversing the stained water of time.
The collection ends with a long poem titled “adult compost.” In this poem, the fertile linguistic refuse of childhood feeds the speaker’s attempts to make sense of his adult world, producing fascinating images like “a rabbit like an arthritic wave / in the green sea of the dog’s dreaming mind.” Meanwhile, the speaker “float(s) like a god / through the dampish linoleum,” telling us “sweet / is the art of listening practiced.” In this poem, “it’s late,” and we’re “listening to the dial tone / back when there was dial tone.” Smith writes, “[I] can imagine the inventor of the dial tone / was like make it sound like a humming lizard / for many are the done wrong / and this’ll be their algae elegiac theme song.” The “done wrong” cry out “as children do before words / in the words of gods / in the stuff of words / without hammering ‘em closed.” Later, Smith writes, “[I] will love the one / who speaks as it is happening” and reminds us that “yes it is good to tell.”
Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer comforts readers with the familiar rhythms of “telling,” yet it doesn’t let us settle. The voice ushers us along from realization to realization, making an episteme of everyday talk. These poems’ “callings” are “more like a thing torn / from a thing than carefully lathed.” It is this sense of immediacy that makes Abraham Smith’s poems so damn good.
Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer, by Abraham Smith. South Bend, Indiana: Action Books. 142 pages. $16.00, paper.
Jordan Sanderson grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His work has appeared in several journals, including Better: A Journal of Culture and Lit, Gigantic Sequins, Red Earth Review, burntdistrict and Caketrain, and he is the author of two chapbooks, The Formulas (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Abattoir (forthcoming from Slash Pine Press). Jordan’s critical work has appeared in The Hollins Critic, Heavy Feather Review, and Alehouse, among other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.