In the title poem here, Smith (Before and After, 1995) reaffirms the ancient equation of drugs and love, and casts an old suspicion on both. In Smith’s world, passion always does dwindle, and most of these poems are written in the low tide of love, when ecstasy has given way to disenchantment and self-accusation. Smith’s portrait of what he calls his “derelict morbid unforgivable self” is always unsparing, but he summons a saving humor and observes the fall out of romance from a wry distance: “She’s gone away for good, but I can’t get over it. / I record my voice saying her name, then mimic her / saying I love you. It gets no better.” At other moments, self-recrimination threatens to become indistinguishable from hysteria or narcissism: “I raged / through the house, explained to the open refrigerator how misused I was, / wept into my hands, puked . . . / listened to whatever song / said the world was an impossible place.” That the refrigerator should be “open” is worth a smile, but here Smith’s extravagance comes close to caricature—the jilted lover who blames the beloved, or simply “the world,” for faults he knows to be his own—and his confessions shade into clichés. More often, however, Smith is a clear-eyed and world-weary champion of the emotional life: “The young men walk down the roads singing stupid songs / & making promises they’ll never keep, & this is familiar. / Love watches itself go to pieces in someone’s backyard, / and later we admit we have no explanation for how things turned out.” To recognize that you have run out of explanations takes a certain courage, to admit as much is a gesture toward wisdom.
These poems take aim at such wisdom and several hit their mark.