I think Anne Sexton and Frank O’Hara had a child and his name is Aaron Smith, and his Blue on Blue Ground is perhaps the bravest collection of poems since Sharon Olds gave us sacraments such as Satan Says and The Gold Cell. Aaron Smith’s courage is on par with that of revolutionary writers like Sexton, O’Hara, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks. It is unapologetically confessional, and both defiantly confrontational and defiantly vulnerable. His emotional honesty and authenticity are disarming and refreshing, especially in today’s poetic culture of guarded wit, artful dodging, and pretense, where emotional searching and self reference are often deemed pathetic and passe. He reminds us of some of the highest callings of poetry, and of the power of art to do what no other noble pursuit can do nearly as well. This book succeeds in the highest aims of art: like science that adheres to its principles, it seeks the truth, without regard to what one might like the truth to be; like the best of law and politics it compels us toward the “better angels of our nature;” like uncorrupted journalism it tells what isn’t being told, despite efforts of powers-that-be to keep it hidden, despite our own wishes to look away; like responsible education it challenges us to question, reconsider, and grow; like medicine not adulterated by motives of profit, its purpose is healing, even if that means doing some painful vivisection first.
Chosen by Denise Duhamel for the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, this book contains gems such as “The Signs of Choking” (to be a bruise spit out/ from the mouth of last night’s/ undressed stranger), “Story” (How quickly I am made strange), the “Dr. Engels” poems (swollen and exaggerated/ like the heads of the baby mice/ Roger squashed in the garage), and “Then,” from which the following is an excerpt:
Of course, there was a tragedy, the way
the beautiful are given back
to the stories that made them, quick
and perfect like a flash of his hair in the wind. And it’s stupid,
predictable - the car, the drunk star athlete
his exhausted mother
to wander the house at night
calling his name
Far greater than the sum of its considerably impressive parts, however, is its power as a collection. It is not only startlingly honest, it also reminds us of two buried anthropological artifacts: that meaningful honesty is not a rigid and easily drawn code concerned with the arrangement of clean facts, and that the liberations such honesty brings, although ultimately dazzling, are sometimes as heavy as its burdens.
The first two poems of Smith’s I ever read, long before I read his book, left me thinking I would not like his work much. I’m usually drawn to more colorful language: a lot of simile, lines dense with bold and inventive imagery, where associations are drawn between the concrete that would otherwise seem unimaginable. Larissa Szporluk’s work comes to mind. That’s not to say my tastes don’t range far from that example, but for reasons that also include factors I haven’t yet identified, I just wasn’t enthusiastic about my first sampling of Smith’s work. The moral of this story is never rule out a poet after one reading, especially when that reading includes only a few poems. I’m more excited about this collection than I have been about anything I’ve read in maybe as long as two or three years, and I’m someone who is thrilled almost daily by something I read.
Blue on Blue Ground makes me want to buy Aaron Smith dinner and spend all night talking with him; it makes me want to be “made strange” to myself; it makes me want to find the bullies of his schooldays and give them bloody noses; it makes me want to get my “hairbrush microphone” and dance around and sing to Blondie and The Bangles; it makes me want to trade my frequent acts of cowardice for treks into my personal wildernesses. This book makes me want to be a better writer. This book, and I say this without the embarrassment it challenges us to defy, makes me want to be a better person. Fulfilling one of art’s most important functions, this book makes me want.