A Paradox of Praise: Arthur Smith's The Fortunate Era, by Andrew Najberg
The Fortunate Era
Carnegie Mellon, 2013
A Paradox of Praise: Arthur Smith's The Fortunate Era
If one photographed an arrow in flight with a fast enough shutter speed to prevent blurring, one would be unable to determine from the photo whether or not the arrow was moving. This raises a crucial question: is the arrow the arrow in flight or the arrow frozen in a moment? When Aristotle refuted Zeno of Elea's paradox by arguing that time did not exist in discrete moments, he lived in a world without high-speed cameras. Now, Zeno's paradox has been recast as scientific principle, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which states that the more precisely you fix an object's location or momentum, the less you know about the other. The arrow has two simultaneous and intrinsically linked identities—identity in time and identity in space—and the fullest understanding of both is acceptance that one will never fully understand either. This twenty five hundred year circle from philosophy to science may surprise some, but Arthur Smith's career has consistently connected modernity to the ancient world. Smith's The Fortunate Era presents Zeno's Paradox and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in poetry through a dualistic portrayal of truth and human consciousness that uses a unity of science and philosophy to create a powerful and modern Horacian praise of the human will.
The collection's title refers both to the theory that the current universe is the only epoch during which matter can exist, and praises the existence of that universe. Though grounded in science, the theory implies something fundamentally special about existence despite that in such a universe existence is defined by chance and brevity, neither of which indicates intrinsic meaning. In “Before the Absolute,” Smith starkly writes, “Before there was the speed of light/ There wasn't. It's that simple.” Just as faith can flag from questioning why bad things happen to good people, it is easy to wonder how there could be so much misfortune within the fortunate era. Smith reminds us that no matter how fortunate, the universe can still be cold and distant, while he also elevates life: “Before every single thing else,/ Only water and the wind roughhousing over it,/ Only water and the wind making it look alive.” As lonely as the image is, the landscape described appears alive even before what is often thought of as “life” filled it, portraying life and existence as intrinsically linked.
An unshakeable sense of purpose in the face of scientific objectivism defines the collection's tone as readers encounter hardships throughout the poems: suicides, the death of a sister and friends, the extinction of species, violence in Bosnia, and more. One might recall the poem, “A Stubborn Ode,” by the late Jack Gilbert (to whom “Riverrun” is dedicated) with its startling litany of horrors and determined conclusion “nevertheless.” In “Of All Things,” Smith portrays a normally isolated tribe's unexpected arrival at a Columbian town. Telling of their journey's struggles and the loss of their homes, Smith writes, “Love lacks a word/ For the future, and so dies in a clearing./ You come to, naked, gray rocks on fire all around./ There is nowhere else to go.” In casting love as leading to its own destruction while being the only real motive to continue living Smith, unlike Gilbert, doesn't praise humanity in spite of its hardships, but because of them.
The poem, “The Truth,” manifests this praise as Smith lists woes from viruses and vaccines linked to overseas manufacturing and misleading product labels. Despite the somewhat humorous tone, readers will likely consider the staggering disgruntlement they encounter day to day and find themselves affirmed by the assertion that “There wasn't anything/ wrong with Jesus...He looked into our hearts and found/ Them crooked.” When Smith recognizes that “The truth is/ When he [Jesus] died he broke/ His mother's crooked/ Little heart,” the tenderness for Mary is not specifically because of her suffering, but because there is no record of her complaint, just as many mothers, fathers, sons and daughters suffer powerful losses in silence. The collection insists that our emotional solitude binds us together as portrayed through Jesus to Joyce to Dickinson as well as “the rarely seen tribes” of Columbia. One is reminded of James Wright's poem,”Northern Pike” (a favorite of Smith's), in which Wright asserts that despite the fact that all lives and human connections end in unimaginable loneliness and pain, “We had/ To go on living.” While Wright presents this human persistence as a simple imperative, Smith elevates it to something higher: living becomes our greatest and most essential triumph.
Therefore, it is only natural that Smith would consider why someone would choose not to live. Inspired by Smith's residence in San Francisco, “Golden Gate” begins with the curious fact that jumpers from the Golden Gate Bridge uniformly face “the known Bay/ and not the towering cold Pacific.” Smith re-appropriates the iconic image and the act of leaping from it into something more complex than despair: “A handful have lived. Any one of them/ Would tell you jumping is an act/ You have time to reconsider./ In a heartbeat, they knew.” The poet's decision to break the line after 'act' and choose 'act' instead of 'action' forces the reader to question the intention behind the jump by implying that there may be something less than genuine about it. At the same time, the presentation of the final image deepens the ambiguity about the jumpers’ motivations because it cannot be determined whether the heartbeat occurred the moment before or after the jump. Were they determined to jump despite their will to live or did they desire to live despite their determination to jump? One thinks of the story about the Lady and the Tiger: in the universe governed by quantum probability to which the collection's title refers, both await behind that door. Perhaps the most telling phrase about these 'survivors' is that “A handful have lived,” which identifies them as both survivors and those whom hardships have driven over the brink. Smith admires the power within the jumpers as he writes, “You can understand/ Wanting to, trembling out there/ On braided cables, wind-whipped/ Hundreds of feet in the air,” capturing the interiors of these people at their most fragile.
Just as the great humanist Erasmus praised Folly as the defining trait of humanity and Dostoevsky's Underground Man praised man's ability to act against his own best interest as the indicator of the existence of free will, Smith praises parts of human life that might seem least praiseworthy because they help define us uniquely as a species. However, unlike poets of the adoxographic tradition, Smith never lapses into the absurd or irrelevant. Some of Smith's poems do contain a wry humor such as depicting the disagreement between Zen and sitting Buddhists in “Rock Garden” as boiling down to “You can't polish/ A brick into a mirror,/ No matter how long/ you rub it with your butt.” However, the levity gives way to depth as Smith indicates that no amount of reason or rational thought brings us closer to understanding the parts of ourselves that defy reason: “All our knowing/ Is no closer to everything/ We can't account for in ourselves.” Even as the final lines seem to admit futility about the human quest for truth, “What terrible hunger,/ To crave meaning/ From rocks,” the phrase “terrible hunger” implies something primal about the quest for meaning. Indeed, humanists such as Erasmus would argue that if the quest for truth were futile, the irrationality of the quest would make it even more praiseworthy.
Smith does not eschew the quest for truth and meaning as inherently pointless or irrational despite the blur embedded in our perceptions as per Zeno’s Paradox and the Uncertainty Principle. In the book’s pivotal poem, “Zeno's Sparrow,” Smith presents a bereaved 'he' on a day of mourning whose attention is divided between his losses and the titular sparrow (and punned paradox). The sparrow, absorbed in “the little/ They live on, and where/ In the deadend of winter/ they find it,” is juxtaposed against the nearly casual interjection that “Someone's friend/ Is being slid/ Into the side of a hill somewhere near here/ Forever this afternoon. / Someone always is/ but this one's/ one of his.” Smith dissociates the personal loss by introducing the burial as that of “someone's friend” and delaying the reveal that “this one's/one of his,” but the sparrow is rendered immediately as “wheat-feathered...in the wheelwell of his car,/ After bug-nuggets,seeds...” The character must bear the weight of a “moment so riddled” with the conflicting emotions generated by the finality represented by the burial juxtaposed with the persistence of life embodied by the sparrow. One choice discrete, and the other infinite. As the “he” realizes “That most of what he'll remember/ Is a long morning spent/ Walking toward/ A blue car/ A sparrow is feeding on,” the emphasis settles on the speaker's journey towards survival, the sparrow, and the destination, the blue car, implying further journeys beyond. Perhaps this is the most striking aspect of Smith's work; all things, even the Fortunate Era itself, must come to an end, but Smith and his poems always fix their gaze on something that lies beyond, even without a single rational reason that something is there other than that it must be.
Andrew Najberg teaches creative writing and other classes for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and his chapbook of poems Easy to Lose was published by Finishing Line Press in 2007. His individual works have appeared inNorth American Review, Artful Dodge, Louisville Review, Nashville Review, Yemassee, Bat City Review, and various other journals and anthologies.