The Essential Story -- 5 Poems of Charlie Smith

The Essential Story

By Charlie Smith

We each wanted our own story, my father and I;
we were talkers, him first then me,
each wanted the other to listen until his heart broke.
It didn't matter where the story began,
or what it was about, each had a better one,
each had gone our farther, seen more,
each needed -- this time -- to be listened to;
each was ready to kill the other to get him to shut up.

Or so it seemed to me
until I hated him. He had the advantage,
years when I didn't exist; I knew dream, agility,
desire, a boy's will. It was no wonder I got out of there,
no wonder I ran for my life
like a boy running at a sunset.

Everywhere I went, sons out on bail
yapped like maniacs. And every time a man stopped me
to pour out his heart, I understood why he did this.
And the whispers in theaters,
and the soft patter after lovemaking,
and the derelict explaining himself to a building
--- I understood. A boy can't make his father listen to him,
and he can't make his father stop talking.
Even years later, when I returned,
my father wouldn't let me get a word in,
he had so much to say about how he missed me.


One Possible Meaning

By Charlie Smith

This afternoon the park is filled with brides.
Among varieties of persuasion the big trees turn back toward the forest.
Adventurers gather in side streets.
The police are looking hard at the sky.
Down at the bay, boys trapped in solitude fish.
Girls hike their pants and stare at the wave line,
remembering secrets they once held dear.
The day offers a ridiculous variation as
an excuse for not coming in on time.
Wild imaginings take the place of religion.
Someone who can't swim offers to cook.
We've devised a means for the obstinate children
to be fed, she says, but no one understands this.
We crave affection, but give only advice.
There are walls topped with broken bicycles.
Someone makes an obscene offer and this
is the best we get all day. Oh don't give in
so easily she says, handing over the keys.
We climb the blue fire escape.
We would like to keep going,
skyline climbers, old men remembering their childhood
who devise a few illegal experiences no one wants to try.
It gets to be more than the officers can take.
The park is dusty, dark, yet the children,
ignored all day, play on, convinced their dedication
releases a magic that changes everything.


I Mean Everything I Say

By Charlie Smith

A boy's first fistfight, he's crying
all the way through it, stupendously alive,
and the girl raging in her room against the elite of the earth,
it's so unconventional, emotion in the chest,
the emptiness after passion, hope like money in a jar,
it's all feeling, expansiveness unwasted & alive, no one
completely understands this, like rain on a clear day,
or amplitude, the unrestricted dispensations,
someone offering a seat, someone hitting wildly back,
the ugly judgment in the plutocrats' eyes,
all from the heart, the jostling
that begins low in the soul, some day in August
when the lover to come, disguised as someone who hates you,
wheels around the corner adjusting her hat,
and that brisk business in the big oaks, wind
conveying some new way of life — or nothing important —
across town, it touches you.


Creation Rites

By Charlie Smith

. . . some average of the holiness in every person you have ever run into,
consider this, something almost like a wall covered in green vines,
an emblem for the spirit, or if not that, what happens when two lovers
stand among bushes in a garden off Houston, arguing a little, but afraid
really to get into it because they fear winding up alone,
and then several music lovers or ex-drug takers wandering along
on a summer day past the restaurant supply stores and the vacant
lot where the wino hotel used to be, they're walking to Chinatown,
these holy people like pilgrims in Benares where they are talking
about putting crocodiles into the river to eat the corpses, you probably heard about it,
and there is some question about procedure in the cremation rites, all that,
but they're obviously part of it, too, the holiness, and still it's summer
and my friend has changed into her bathing suit and is walking
the three blocks to the public pool, it's getting kind of late, she'll swim
twenty laps and finish as the life guard, a slender boy with an island accent,
waits for her to come up out of the water like a rectified god.


Talking to Whom

By Charlie Smith

I am like a man
swallowing small fish whole.
Afterwards he watches TV,
coughing quietly into his fist.
If I rub my naked belly around
on the floor, where will you be,
in which room, talking on the phone?
It’s at moments like these some tragic
element, some quip
or piece of hotel furniture
flies out the window. Little reaper,
Jefe, there was something else
I wanted to say. I’ve investigated
all this. And stood among the market’s
bright fruit weeping openly.
Dear, they are tearing down the movie theaters --
blackened areas in which we clutched each other,
leaving marks.

Profile of Charlie Smith

From The New Georgia Encyclopedia

Charlie Smith (b. 1947)

A Georgia-born poet, novelist, and short-story writer, Charlie Smith

Smith has won numerous honors and awards, including
Charlie Smith
is a frequent contributor to national literary journals and periodicals, including Poetry, the Paris Review, and the New Yorker. Equally adept at poetry and fiction, Smith is a master of notable lyrical description, sensory detail, and candor. In five novels, three novellas, and five collections of poetry, Smith balances the loneliness and bleakness of his characters' lives with the beauty and transcendence of the natural world.

Charlie Smith, son of Georgia legislator Charlie O. Smith Sr. and Jeanette Early Smith, was born June 27, 1947, in Moultrie, Georgia. Educated at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Smith received a B.A. in English and philosophy from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971, and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in 1983. Smith has been a newspaper writer and editor, businessman, farmer, and laborer. From 1968 to 1970 he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia.

Smith's first marriage, to Kathleen Huber in 1974, ended in divorce three years later. In 1987 he married Gretchen Mattox, a poet and teacher. He has lived, taught, and traveled throughout the world. He and teaches creative writing and lectures at Princeton University and resides in New York City.

He has won numerous honors and awards, including the Aga Khan Prize from the Paris Review for his novella Crystal River, the National Poetry Series Award in 1987 and the Great Lakes New Poets Award in 1988, both for Red Roads. He is a member of PEN and the Academy of American Poets, and served on the board of directors for the Poetry Society of America from 1992 to 1996.


In elegant and lyric prose, Smith explores the limits of his characters' endurance in often violent and erotic encounters. At his best when he cuts through the sentiment of life experiences, Smith chronicles the skirmishes that take place in the hearts of the protagonists.

Canaan (1984), set in South Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s, is the tale of Elizabeth Bonnet Burdette, a former belle whose refusal to follow anyone's rules, including those of her husband, J. C., owner of the ancestral home of Canaan, sets up a confrontation between old and new traditions. Shine Hawk (1988) is narrated in a series of long flashbacks by Billy Crew, who returns to the Shine Hawk prairie of south Georgia after years of exile in New York to confront Hazel Rance, his former girlfriend. Billy instead gets involved in a journey to bury his buddy Frank's dead brother. Often erotic and violent, the novel deals with loss, love, and the need to persevere. The Lives of the Dead (1990) also involves a journey, this one by Buddy Drake, a cult filmmaker traveling to Florida, whose troubles, both real and imagined, blur the lines between madness and murder.

Crystal River: Three Novellas (1991), which includes the award-winning title story first published by the Paris Review in 1983, explores similar themes: protagonists searching for answers in their spiritual journeys, a desire for brotherly love, and absent fathers and ineffectual mothers. Smith's fourth novel, Chimney Rock (1993), features a modern Hollywood setting that is both southern gothic and metaphoric dreamscape. The novel is part murder mystery, part family tragedy, and part exploration of extremes. The novel's narrator, Will Blake, becomes involved in a violent, Oedipal struggle with his father over their shared love for Kate Dunn, Will's wife. In his novel Cheap Ticket to Heaven (1996), Smith chronicles the serial killings of Jack and Clare, bank robbers who cut a bloody swath traveling the length of the Mississippi River.


In five collections of poetry— Red Roads (1987), Indistinguishable from the Darkness (1990), The Palms (1993), Before and After (1995), and Heroin and Other Poems (2000)—Smith's elegant lyrics and sensory details plunge his characters into extreme situations and private emotions with honesty and intensity. Whether detailing the landscape of his native South or signifying heroin as a metaphor for longing and desire, Smith's poetry speaks to the same themes as his novels: memories, fate, loneliness, brotherhood, failed relationships, desperate and disillusioned voices, and the sadness and defiance of families falling apart.

In a 1993 interview, Smith acknowledges his wild boy past that gives life to the narrators and situations in much of his poetry. Though his characters often seem to have reached the end of the road, their will to survive is evident in their struggle to overcome self-pity and desperation. The haunting tone of Smith's verse reflects a cynical and disillusioned world whose inhabitants desperately seek a hard-won wisdom that is central to Smith's own experience.