Smithereens By Terence Young September 3, 2021 by Pearl Pirie
Smithereens is Terence Young’s 3rd book of poetry and 6th book. It feels polished but not pat. It is not wrestling against itself or bogging down in complex language and structures. It is comfortable in its poetic skin of stories. There’s something like Richard Harrison, Bruce Taylor, John Lent, and Michael Dennis to how these poems are common days unfolding in an orderly way.
His previous collections won many accolades. Smithereens, like these, aim for the lyrical in the everyday. There’s a gentle tender prodding of what’s around.
Anecdotes are voiced in couplets and lines, even in lengths as cordwood. There’s a certain low-key equanimity mixed with melancholy. For example, in “Mixed Blessing”, p. 11:
"For a while we called it the good fire, the best fire, the fire that saved us because we were insured, and the insurance paid for all the things we could never afford,"
It relates a list of missing objects. It adds a razor-cut ending of what couldn’t be replaced, a turn to the smallest pathos,
“our youngest’s kindergarten rendering of a tugboat—blue hull, aquamarine ocean, blowing billows of smoke into a cloudless and benign sky.”
Even a child knows the world intends no harm. The quotidian and concrete opened to the profound. We try not to take the world’s injury personally. It ends with a gesture opening out to the universe, considering our small place in it. The ending is a send-off, as it is in most of his poems. Not an elaborately tied bow but a definite crisscrossed ribbon.
“My Mother’s Cigarette Case” is three pages associating memories, how the case is a synecdoche for her and for his childhood. Years after her death the memento gains instead of loses significance. p. 12
"I want it even now, years after I have given up the habit, if only for the sound it made when she snapped it shut."
The lyric gaze is kindly, even to the bear in the garbage. The poet rendered himself philosophical and safe. One can be sympathetic to a bear who by luck of geography and past encounters, has a clear run at food and not at you.
'the garbage can’s rectangular lid and four neat punctures, arranged in a fan, an arc, like a winning hand of poker, jokers wild.
One gets the feeling the relating to bear is a humble recognition of another place and time it all wouldn’t be so smooth, an acknowledging the other, who isn’t the bear, but the path other people have to live. It is not fully a chance operation of who gets to profit but at the same time, misfortune is as easy as a step left or right in traffic.
p. 66 “Fern Island Candle” is a meditation on the Big Themes of Death and Lost Youth through the vintage wick of a scented candle. There’s a tribute for Gary who “Praised the mycelial mat/and the healing powers of tea tree oil.”
Once you get to a certain age as a writer, your principal occupation is at risk of becoming an obituary writer. You risk bringing a certain nostalgia to any topic. “On Aging”, p. 74 reflects on how many doors that have closed by talking about its opposite “pencil marks ascending/the door jamb, the numerical advance/ of grades, height, years, their growing /importance and prestige, life for them/ a series of doors opening”.
Judging from the poems I was surprised he wasn’t a much older man than he is. There are good stories and rich with details. I can’t say I learned any insight or new way of seeing. Which is not to say he does not surprise himself as he writes. There is a new awareness dawning, self-aware in light of insects in the kitchen, dutifully put outside, out of humanly claimed territory. “The Things They’ve Ruined” (p. 80-81) starts as a list (he likes lists) of what bugs have gotten into and the grandiose generosity of response of not killing them but taking them outside which “ own pastoral yearnings” say is good.
"a pair of them slide down the drain mat into the sink, climb back up and do it again."
There’s the sense of feeling invaded, having what is rightfully yours taken. It’s a recognition of human sense of property. And human, or perhaps male-specific, sense of goodness and validity being protecting the weak. It is knowing nothing you could profit by is lost by this involuntary sharing and yet feeling usurped as an authority. Duped to think there is an ideal world that they live in, apart from the world you live in. A sense of perhaps admiration of the ants who can outwit and outmaneuver and despite you, survive you. The ending then loops back to the title. What is it they have ruined? The pie or the sense of other and superior?
This reconciling with colonial ideas of conquer is wrestled again in “On First Viewing the Extent of the Beaver Invasion” where beavers are recast from pest rodent to “e voracious vegetarians, monogamous good parents” who also have colonial aspirations. Maybe that’s not bad he concedes. Maybe we all change our world given any chance. There’s a lot of self-comforting and reassurance in the next as a buffer against all the strife.
There are also light comic poems, such as navigating one’s ambivalence about parties. “The Party” p. 92.
"Do we go to parties, they asked themselves. Do we like parties, they asked themselves. Now they were getting somewhere."
Now there’s a poem for the Covid era. Except that they went and drifted home. Event as non-event.
The poems are a good comfortable middle-class white read. It is well-written, well-considered and not heart-wrenching. (Who needs everything to be heart-wrenching.) He speaks from where he is and aims to reach to whoever will listen about this fleeting human condition of life and loss.