Robert Lavett Smith
Robert Lavett Smith, raised in New Jersey, has lived since 1987 in San
Francisco, where for the past fifteen years he has worked as a Special Education
Paraprofessional. He has studied with Charles Simic and Galway Kinnell. He is
the author of several chapbooks and two full-length poetry collections, the most
recent of which is Smoke
In Cold Weather: A Gathering of Sonnets (Full Court Press, 2013).
THIS FIRST DAY OF WINTER
My late wife’s birthday—this first day of winter—
Comes decked out in accustomed monochrome.
Daylight’s the brittle brown of newsprint; her
Absence fills every corner of my home.
Solicitations will sometimes arrive
Here, where she never lived when she was living;
Publishers Clearing House keeps her alive;
Junk mail can be especially unforgiving.
Four days from now is Christmas. After that,
The thirteenth anniversary of her death.
A new year beckons: dull days beaten flat,
Chilled by the pale Pacific’s briny breath.
Somebody’s future sings of Auld Lang Syne;
I don’t know whose it is; it isn’t mine.
“For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as
One thing I miss about my East Coast childhood:
Snow days, when sharp flakes swept into the silence
Like updraft ash blown loose from burning wood,
Beyond the reach of heat’s brief recompense.
But San Francisco schools are closed today
In what appears a horrid mockery
Of that lost whiteness where we used to play—
Perhaps a glimpse of some Hell still to be.
The morning news shows blackened shells of cars,
Blistering mountain roads engulfed in flame
More than two hours’ drive north of where we are;
Our sunrise smells of things we scarce dare name.
Rank smoke drifts south—an omen to believe—
That burns our eyes and throats, too thick to breathe.
IF I BURNED THESE WORDS
i.m.: Patricia Lewis Smith, 1953-2005
You are more than thirteen years gone.
What would I tell you
if I could write to you now?
Today an African-American woman
married into the British Royal Family.
You would have liked that—
although she, of mixed race,
is pallid enough to pass for White.
The ceremony was carried on several channels.
In the many-hued light of Saint George’s Chapel,
a gospel choir sang “Stand By Me.”
The bride’s mother, looking improbably young,
and dark complexioned, as you were,
was a motionless study in poise and grace.
I thought of our own wedding day,
nearly twenty years ago—
how the white train of your gown
followed you down the aisle
like receding sea foam,
as if silently acknowledging
your fondness for the ocean.
I loved you then,
with a devotion I realize
your absence has only deepened.
Now you are smoke,
or perhaps no longer even that.
If I burned these words,
would they somehow reach you?
This isn’t exactly a vacation:
numb days worn thin as stone,
the pages of the calendar blank,
the bloated moon stumbling
through a sated summer sky.
Joy, we learn, is never enough.
It fattens on the blackened flesh
of strangers’ pain, fashioning
deceit from splintered bones,
filling the cracks in neglected hours
with supplications in a dead language.
We have become like the Thunderbird—
flightless skeletons startled into shale,
recording our ordinary disappointments
in the shifting calligraphy of sand.
WHEN THE BIRDS COME
When the birds come, the rush of wings,
too small for the ear to appreciate,
insinuates itself into the silence
which has become so pervasive one hardly
notices it anymore. In cold summer, season
of dampness and fog, they must huddle
together for warmth, we suppose,
on the sodden branches of the trees,
foliage golden and dripping like the rags
of last year’s light. Deep into August,
no birdsong bejewels the weeping mist,
no warbler or sparrow writes its name
on the blank page of that sullen weather.
But when the birds come, the air takes heed,
and the hearts of housebound multitudes
are borne upward out of solitude,
like the vapor that rises, a few days a year,
from the whitened asphalt that mars
the abandoned streets of the Presidio.
WAGERS, NORTH ATLANTIC, 1945
On troop ships returning from Europe
off-duty seamen while away the hours
dropping carburetors from officers’ cars
overboard to see which ones will sink
the fastest; wagers are made and lost
amid inebriated laughter. Some manage
to stay afloat for several seconds before
they disappear like rusty pinwheels
into the foaming chaos off the bow.
A TOWN CALLED “LEPER”
Veterans Day, 2018
My father’s father fought in World War I,
Returning to his farm in New York State
To guard his secrets, grimly carry on,
Bearing stern silence like a heavy weight.
I’m told he saw some action once, at Yprès;
But his were wounds that would remain unseen,
That fester more the longer that they keep—
A town called “Leper” left his flesh unclean.
He died when I was two; I can’t recall
The close companionship it’s said we shared;
I keep one single photograph: I’m small,
Running plump fingers through his thinning hair.
I never had the chance to know the man,
To touch his grief—I don’t suppose I can.
KEVIN NEGOTIATES WITH TIME
Ninth grader Kevin negotiates with time
In his unique and unexpected way:
Scrawls dates on tiny paper planes that climb
A passing updraft and are swept away.
He tells me this the week before his birthday;
Impatient for the big day to arrive,
He writes a testy note to it to say
It better get a move on. Lately, I've
Found he does what he has to, to survive,
Taming the future with these “time machines.”
He turns his fancy loose and lets it thrive
In places few of us have ever been.
I wish I were as sure as Kevin is
Time could be cowed by strategies like his.