Waking before Dawn
by Thomas R. Smith

(Red Dragonfly Press)

Thomas R. Smith exemplifies the public image of a poet-kind, thoughtful, and keenly sensitive to the life going on around him, both human and natural. Sensitive to a fault, perhaps, but a fault allowed to poets, who can turn even a toad being hit by a lawn mower into a cathartic event (described in his poem "The Toad"). But in Waking before Dawn, Smith's latest collection, he sets aside this persona, for much of the book, to take up a different role-that of our deeply troubled social conscience.

The book is dominated by poems that make the political personal: globalization, the World Trade Center attacks, homes being bulldozed in Gaza, and above all the war in Iraq. Smith sees the war not as a creation of Cheney, Rove, Bush & co., but something that came from and is symbolic of the dark side of a new America, bound up with vanity and selfishness:

Is this the Republic the founders dreamt
and died for-blinded by needy self-love,
gullible cynics serving money power?
Lonely America, slouching towards dust
("Empire Bankruptcy")

Readers who agree with Smith's views (I'm guessing that's about 95% of us) will find in these poems confirmation of our own anger and loss, and a sort of solidarity, a resolution to soldier on with the peace marches and election organizing. Readers who do not share Smith's views will probably laugh at the poems, but even they must admit that he has done what no politician would dare: give Americans themselves a good sound telling off:

Our ancestors don't want to be with us
anymore, they are leaving us now and going
back to the old country to stand inside
the doomed cities with the children who are
dying, whom Christ asked to "come unto Him."
("The Old Country")

Nestled away among the louder political pieces are elegies and tributes (to Paul Wellstone, John Lennon, William Stafford, Iris DeMent and others), and poems that celebrate weddings and square dances and writing and August stars. Trust is leaving your car with the mechanic. Faith is putting your clothes on the line after a storm, "betting wind against rain". Aging is a pencil being worn down to the stub. Thomas R. Smith is the master of the understatement, and if he sometimes rolls his metaphors a bit thin his sincerity and charm never flag. From "Krista at Fifty":

You grant the caught fish of your delight its
freedom-give it back, give it back to Love.
You save the years by spending them, and grow
rich on the interest. You don't take prisoners.

This poet does not take prisoners either. He's awake before dawn, looking off a dock that's "a runway to eternity" and "wrestling with a dusty angel. / I brush his handprints off my shirt / while asking what became of the spring light." And in spite of Iraq and botched elections, he can manage to squeeze some dreams out of April snow:

We can live there, where hope is
still young and hearts give strength to the world
as it's never been, the world trying to be born.

- Joel Van Valin