By Austin Smith
Princeton University Press, 2018. $17.95
Reviewed by Andrew Jones
Austin Smith’s second poetry collection from Princeton University Press, Flyover Country (2018), brims with the patient buzz of the midwestern prairie. The sixty poems spread over three sections that comprise the collection present a poetic vision that is candid and unsentimental. While not every poem is situated in the midwest, the quiet but complex culture of this region simmers throughout the collection as readers encounter the landscapes of rural small towns, the imagery of farms, and an examination of the natural world.
Smith’s style is void of gimmicks and tricks—its clear, simple language is a strength akin to John Williams’s prose. The tone and diction may be reserved in these poems but the content is deep and potent. In “Beyond Mirror Lake,” Smith writes:
This fear was nothing
Like our fear of terror or the warming of the planet
But a wordless, private fear we were never
Meant to know.
Many poems feel as if the poet is giving us permission to embrace ideas or emotions we’ve been waiting to have confirmed.
While the pastoral is woven into Smith’s poetry, so too is the political. “The Bombing of Hospitals,” “American Glue Factory,” and “That Particular Village” are tough and pointed indictments on war, industry, and the environment. Meanwhile, in poems such as “Cat Moving Kittens,” “The Only Tavern in Hyde, Wisconsin,” and “The Blind,” readers encounter the political in the quiet tensions of the land:
They watched the gray sky for geese
While we watched the hunters from the burn pile
We were forbidden from passing beyond,
As if we were the ones in danger.
With clarity and stark language, Smith welcomes readers to inhabit this terrain rather than zooming past from a distance.
The poems in Flyover Country are steeped in memory, where comfort and fear mingle in delightful surprise. Smith’s poems ask readers for patience and they reward that consideration with moving imagery and stoic depth. “Cicadas,” which opens the final section of the collection, captures the careful vulnerability Smith excels at:
I wish I could leave
My body blown open upon this bed
For a boy to find and carry
Up to a farmhouse, cupped gently
In his hand so as not to crush it.
While this may be a wish for the speaker of the poem, it’s an apt metaphor for the manner with which Smith’s poems open up landscapes, both internal and external, and offer us a sound path to traverse.
Andrew Jones teaches writing at the University of Dubuque in Iowa. His writing has appeared in recent issues of Hobart, Split Rock Review, The Tishman Review, and Memoir Mixtapes.