GRACE C. OCASIO Reviews
Routes Home by Crystal Simone Smith
(New Women’s Voices Series, Number 102, Finishing Line Press,Georgetown, KY, 2013)
Textualizing the Rural South: Crystal Simone Smith’s Routes Home
Crystal Simone Smith bears witness like a griot/folklorist in her moving collection Routes Home, articulating her family’s traditions––good and bad. In point of fact, her collection revolves around the maternal side of her family, great-grandparents and grandparents alike. Smith often surprises, fascinating the reader with her breadth of knowledge of the rural South. Smith writes of the southern black experience without making race her central theme. Poems dealing with religion are handled tastefully, emphasizing the communal nature of church gatherings. Smith’s volume is a must read for those concerned that the sights and sounds of the rural South are no longer being documented in written form.
In the prefatory poem (“Greyhound”) that appears in Smith’s collection, the reader discovers the importance of landscape in Smith’s work. Smith explains: “Every year for one summer week we fled city concrete . . . All to get down home, a foothill / in the blue ridge mountains. . . .” Using few words, Smith effectively situates the reader in a specific region of the United States. Should one wonder which area of the Blue Ridge Mountains Smith is referring to, one need only consult the text itself, where the words “down home” clue the reader in that Smith means traveling southward, not northward, toward home. In addition, the word “foothill” serves as an apt signpost that for Smith home is located somewhere in Virginia or North Carolina. Alongside locality, the introductory poem sets up the significance of generational markers (employed throughout the volume) as when Smith acknowledges the following regarding her grandmother’s personal history: “[S]he road the mule-pulled tractor to the schoolhouse in snow.” Thus, one learns here of one specific physical hardship the grandmother endured as a young girl, a hardship that speaks to the generation she belongs to.
Familial conflict rears its head in the piece, “Purse Poem, 1985,” contained in the first section. Here, Smith writes of how her grandmother questions her, requiring her to know something about handbag etiquette: “Where is your purse? Surely, you must have a purse.” The grandmother goes on to say, “Be prim in a dress! And never without a purse!” The grandmother’s words, though powerful, are the words of a scold. One can easily relate to Smith, imagining the searing words being spoken, thus taking their effect. What becomes of Smith in the aftermath of the grandmother’s blistering lesson on manners? Smith ends the poem with these words: “I stand still, / hold myself in my hands, / gaze my woman fate.” What is wonderful about Smith’s parting words is how she implicates the grandmother in her role as overbearing teacher without having to state the obvious. Smith’s words insinuate the emotional damage her grandmother has inflicted upon her, undoing any possible good the grandmother might have intended.
Where, in the poem “Purse Poem, 1985,” the grandmother scrutinizes Smith, Smith, in turn, does her own scrutinizing––not of her grandmother––but of her uncle in her piece “Shameful.” This clever poem features a dog (eponymously named) that serves as a symbol, highlighting the negative traits of the uncle. Once again, as in her poem “Purse Poem, 1985,” Smith critiques a family member employing understated language. The dog Shameful is the vehicle through which Smith expresses her opinion of her uncle:
I wish, at best, he’d [Shameful] bark
what I knew to be true, declaring in dog speak––
Had you not been unconscious
again on that damn moonshine,
you would have caught me
with that tramp, slinging trash too.
Through these lines, masterfully woven together, Smith implies that the uncle’s behavior is no better than the dog’s––perhaps even worse.
Part two of Smith’s collection, the longer of two sections, opens with the poem “Black Jack Church.” Smith’s grandmother, as in other poems, is the central figure of this poem. Arguably the most southern-infused poem in the collection, words like “hind-leg insects,” “June bugs,” and “blackjack oaks” assert themselves on the page. The grandmother prompts her granddaughter, insisting that she “Come on, Late” to church. Once at church, Smith’s grandmother “whispers” to her the word “Fellowship.” As in “Purse Poem, 1985,” the grandmother remains true to her schoolmarm-like self. It may very well be that by using the soft tone of a “whisper,” she seeks to entice and acclimatize her granddaughter to the church setting. Certainly the words “humming, heels tapping hardwoods, / backs rocking the hard pews we settle into” heighten the reader’s sense that a church service is taking place. The one tell-tale sign that this congregation is entirely African American comes through the description of the worshippers as “swinging to the cadence / of a hymn,” a phenomenon quite common in black churches. Unlike Smith’s earlier poem on her grandmother (“Purse Poem, 1985), this poem allows the reader to see a softer side of the grandmother. Perhaps it is in the
very fact that the grandmother blends in with other churchgoers that she seems less intimidating.
The one poem possessing the potential for Smith to have drawn out more the complexities of racial conflict is “Fire Night.” This piece stands out in its subtlety, yet it resonates in a literary sense (William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”) and in a cultural way via the history of race relations in the Old South. As in “Barn Burning,” the main figure, Smith’s grandfather, is a sharecropper; and of course, the point of comparison ends here since, Smith’s grandfather is black and a victim while Faulkner’s main character Abner is white and the victimizer/aggressor, acting out his rage toward the white Southern gentry. Nevertheless, the reader understands that Smith’s own work is grounded in a literary tradition that addresses the injustices of the Old South’s class system and the propensity toward violence that such a system wrought.
On the subject of race relations in the Old South, a fairly long, uninterrupted history of violent acts rendered against African Americans exists by way of de facto examples and in media depictions through film. Indeed, documentation abounds of racial incidents that resulted in physical harm to persons and their property. One fairly vivid illustration of property damage occurs in the film Boycott (starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) when one of Dr. King’s contemporaries, E.D. Nixon (played by Reg E. Cathey), watches as his screened porch goes up in flames and suffers the additional indignity of witnessing white firemen stand by as his porch burns up. In “Fire Night,” the year is 1958 when Smith’s grandfather watches as his barn burns down. According to Smith, her “grandfather and sons / charged out to see the barn engulfed.” However, it is unclear as to how the barn goes up in flames. In the last stanza of the poem, Smith reveals that “White firemen, a town / away traveling slow to the aroma / of sweet leafs, they can almost taste.” This reader wonders how far away is the town from where the white firemen came––one mile, three miles, ten miles away? The implication is that the firemen’s town is in close enough proximity to Smith’s grandfather’s town that the firemen could reach it in time to save the barn. Hence, if Smith had chosen to place a definitive distance marker in her final stanza, doing so would have further enhanced the reader’s perception of the events at hand. Still, this poem is powerful in its understatement, allowing one to infer that the grandfather’s barn has been destroyed by white terrorists.
Where Smith presents the reader with “Shameful” as a character study of a less than exemplary male relative, she also provides an equally potent poem in “What Is Man But Breath and Britches?” a piece that extols the virtues of Smith’s great-grandfather. The poem unfolds as a portrait of “Grandfather Harvey,” a man with a “field-tinged face.” This image is amazing because it conveys the message that the grandfather is a man of the earth––rural––while also imbuing him with a quality of quiet dignity. Should one be tempted to pity him, what with Smith’s description of his “overalls, limp underneath caked red dirt,” Smith’s skillful pen does not allow one to do so because, as she so eloquently explains via statement, “This is the life he was given. What is there to say?”
The penultimate poem of Smith’s collection, “Personals,” is, essentially, a love song to the South. Although the poem begins with Smith lamenting the loss of her parents then citing, midway through, more problematic aspects of the South (“I often blame the South / where hardship is worshipped . . .”), it ends with a charming description of the natural world: “It’s the chorale of crickets at night, rivaling. / Who can cry the loudest under weeping willows, / grandstands of growth that fall down bent over / everything.” Smith’s words definitively illustrate her ambivalence toward the South. However, Smith elects to end her poem casting the South she knows so well in a romantic light.
Smith’s collection is a bitter-sweet amalgamation of southern life. Those who come to her volume ignorant of the South as a region will walk away understanding its myriad nuances and intricacies.
Twice a finalist for the Rash Poetry Award (2010, 2013), Grace C. Ocasio is a recipient of the 2014 North Carolina Arts Council Regional Artist Project Grant. She won honorable mention in the 2012 James Applewhite Poetry Prize, the 2011 Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka Poetry Prize, and a 2011 Napa Valley Writers' Conference scholarship. Her first full-length collection, The Speed of Our Lives, was published by BlazeVOX Books in 2014. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Poetry Anthology, VII: North Carolina, Rattle, Court Green, Earth's Daughters, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Hollerin from This Shack, was published by Ahadada Books in 2009. She is a Soul Mountain Retreat fellow, Fine Arts Work Center and Frost Place alumna, and member of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective. She received her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, her MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.