Winter has arrived in River Falls: Let Thomas Smith be your escort
Long, dark, snowy days are here again. Local poet Thomas Smith assures us in his new book about winter that all is not bleak.
Smith describes his just-published "Winter Hours" as an "extended seasonal meditation that follows the natural cycle of late fall to early spring."
"It's also an attempt to beat the well-known winter blahs - the cold, bleak, stuck-inside attitude we often have about winter. The poems are my way of finding beauty, pleasure and vividness in everyday moments."
Composed in the late 1990s, the 40 tightly crafted poems of this slim volume make up Smith's fourth poetry collection. Two others remain in print: "The Dark Indigo Current" and "Horse of Earth." A chapbook of politically charged poems before last year's presidential election was called "Peace Vigil."
In "Winter Hours," the poems are not only seasonal but in most cases localized.
"There are references to The Mound, EconoFoods, Dairy Queen, the Kinni, Country Road M, Cascade Avenue, Clifton Hollow, the block where I live (State Street) and quite a few - probably about 50% of them - from just in my yard," Smith said.
While seasonal and local landmarks prevail, there are poems about love, humor, politics and dreams.
Winter of 1998-99 was also "freakishly warm." Several poems allude to this phenomenon and Smith's unease about climatic changes for the planet.
In addition, the River Falls poet turned 50 that winter. He said that "passage occasioned more than the usual amount of stock taking...general questioning and self-assessment."
"I didn't want the winter theme to be repetitive, so my aim was to present poems with a certain range of variety," Smith said. "Some are more reflective of the external world, while others have an psychological inward turning from the cold darkness. I took the best sampling of these threads to make up a tapestry of one particular winter."
Smith said the five-to-six year gap between when the poems were first written and to when they were finally published isn't unusual.
"Unless you're a best-selling author cranking out a book a year - which is not the case for poets - there's often a lag time between the literary production and publication," Smith said. "There's also a refining down to get them published in book form."
In the poetry of "Winter Hours" Smith tried "to get back to the present moment."
In his last collection, "Dark Indigo Current," Smith time traveled many years back to examine a relationship with a father who had recently died.
In "Winter Hours," Smith said he had a "hunger for the present, to confront the world of the here and now."
Many of the new poems concern coming upon dignity, compassion and renewal in the midst of a raw, dismal landscape. One such poem is "Upstairs Window."
The thirty-below wind in the EconoFoods
parking lot blows up questions: What am I doing
here? Am I merely indulging myself at others'
expense? It's hard keeping the cold off the lettuce.
I turn down our snowy street, and see at the end
an upstairs window, so small, swimming in darkness,
light of the hope and pity of being human.
Smith's new poetry is more compressed than before. Each of the 40 poems is a mere seven lines.
"At first it just turned out that many of the poems were that length. After noticing that I decided to adopt that form," he said. "There's probably a very strong oriental influence. I love old Japanese and Chinese poetry, including the momentary expressions of haiku.
"I've always been intrigued by those short forms. It's an interesting challenge to see how much I can pack into a few lines."
Besides hitting upon a satisfying seven-line format, Smith found another emerging trend.
"I began to identify a recurring tendency toward a line length of between 10 and 12 syllables, which I then began to cultivate consciously," he said.
The iambic pentameter-style, which has to do with accented and unaccented syllable length per line, differed from Smith's earlier free-form "organic" poems.
"Counting syllables, I learned to let lines of desired syllabic length take shape in my mind as I wrote them, a discipline I believe most poets can develop with practice," he said.
Readers of "Winter Hours" will notice how settings of light and dark evolve, intersect and reverse course.
Leading up to the winter solstice, the natural light in the poems dwindles. After the solstice, that light creeps back as darkness gives way.
Even the stark, all-white front and back covers of the new book define winter. In small print on the front is the book's name, author and publisher (Red Dragonfly Press in Red Wing, Minn.). To the side is a tiny blue snowflake.
Thomas joked that people have compared the book's appearance to the Beatles famous "White Album" of the late 1960s.
"It has the look of a certain kind of purity," he said. "Inside, there is one poem per page and plenty of white space. It almost looks as if the poem is the ground and the space between and above each title is the snow and white sky.
A great little holiday gift for poetry lovers, "Winter Hours" is available at Whole Earth Grocery, 126 S. Main St., and Freeman Drug, 104 S. Main St. Other local outlets may carry the book later, including the public library.
Another way to buy the book is by calling Smith at 425-2137 or by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
More of Smith's poetry will appear very soon in a winter book anthology of Minnesota-area poets called "There is No Other Way to Speak." The anthology will also appear in CD form, with the writers reading from their works.
While Smith says the publishing economics of small-press poetry is bad, he has a larger manuscript ready with a "completely different look and feel." He expects to call the collection "Waking Before Dawn."