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In 'Above Ground,' Clint Smith meditates on a changing world, personal and public

Little, Brown & Company

When you're confronted with the whole world at once — when you can fathom even the things you cannot see and are not prepared for — it becomes impossible to hide from the truth. Clint Smith's new poems in Above Ground wash over like waves asking us to discern all the times we've trusted the world, even when it has not offered us a steady current.

Even though this collection addresses a subject as tremendous as the changing world we live in, the poems read with ease. It helps that Smith is writing about fatherhood and legacy — both of which are marked by good, engaging narratives. Ultimately, these poems are attempting to answer the questions on every child's mind: Where did we come from? Where are we going?

The thread of time holding these poems together is not a straight line, but rather intertwined and then sewn back into itself. And as travelers, we are fully aware that this is an endless and often roundabout journey. This is, in one way, conveyed by the poem titles. We are at the genesis of the world in "Pangea," and later "Looking at a Photo" or at "Zoom School with a Toddler." Still, no matter where we are in time, we are faced with obstacles that challenge how we trust the world around us.

In "When People Say 'We Have Made It Through Worse Before'," Smith writes, "Sometimes the moral arc of the universe // does not bend in a direction that comforts us." He is choosing to validate a history burdened with pain and separation. But just after that line, he follows:

"...Please, dear reader,

do not say that I am hopeless. I believe there is a better future

to fight for, I simply accept the possibility that I may not

live to see it..."

This simultaneous, wave-like structure — the swings and the downfalls, together — is a core quality of this collection. Smith wrestles with the reality of the violence that took away those for whom things can't get worse, because they're gone — against his faith in the ultimate goodness of the world in which he is raising his children.

In many ways, the poet's wonder at the world keeps him holding on to this faith in the way the universe works. In one poem he writes about a kind of jellyfish, and how the creature regenerates its cells, "which, in essence, makes the jellyfish immortal." But then he is angry at the jellyfish — alive even though his own grandfather is no longer here. "What need does a jellyfish have / for an infinity that will only get lost in the current?"

In a later poem his son asks why giraffes have four ears. Of course, it only has two, the other two "ears" are simply horns, called ossicones — cartilage left behind as a mark of evolution. The poet writes:

"...I look at my son,

and think of all the things I might try

to give him that he will one day have

no need for."

In Smith's narrative, nothing is static and yet there is a reason behind every change. That is not to say that it is all for a good reason, or that it all works out. Smith is not naively optimistic. In one poem he wonders about cicadas: "I remain astonished / by how cicadas live for seventeen years / underground and then die within weeks / of coming up to meet the world." Indeed the world tends to disappoint us. And these are moments when we might want to hide. But still there is faith — as Smith writes in the poem "What I've Learned": "There are sixty-thousand miles of blood vessels in my body and every single centimeter keeps me alive."

Water is also a powerful force throughout the collection; it seems to both relieve and destroy, bring together and separate. In the collection's very first poem "All at Once" Smith writes, "The river that gives us water to drink is the same one that might wash us away." And then in "Pangea": "I wake up in love // with the ocean and fall asleep despising / all it has put between us." Where there is the possibility to float there is also the possibility to drown. This binary embodies the continuous volatility of the world.

Ultimately these poems point to our ability to trust in the face of this volatility. Trust that your unborn baby's heart is in fact beating, even if you cannot hear it. Trust that the sunset is a vision of beauty, even if you haven't stopped to look at it. Trust that the world will still be here when your children grow up, even though it seems to be burning right now. In one poem Smith writes — "I fear everything I control / and know I control nothing" — reminding himself that trust is sometimes the only way forward.

Jeevika Verma is a poet, journalist, and audio producer. She was a producer at NPR's Morning Edition and Up First before joining The Journal — a podcast produced by Gimlet Media and The Wall Street Journal.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.